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Piano Trio No. 2 in C minor, Op. 66

December 4, 2022 – The Sitkovetsky Trio

On January 21, 1832, Mendelssohn wrote from Paris to his sister Fanny, “I should like to compose a couple of good trios.” Over a decade earlier he had written a trio for piano, violin, and viola that he never published, but he did not compose a “good trio”—one he thought worthy of publication—until 1839. Published in 1840, the D minor Trio, for the more conventional combination of piano, violin, and cello, was hailed by Schumann in the Neue Zeitschrift as “the master Trio of the age, as were the B-flat and D major trios of Beethoven and the E-flat Trio of Schubert in their time.” Mendelssohn finally made good on his 1832 wish when in 1845 he composed a second piano trio—his last—the present C minor. Owing to its strong outer sonata-form movements, the characteristic songfulness in the second movement, and the fleet-footed scherzo, the C minor Trio easily merits a place alongside the D minor.

Mendelssohn dedicated the C minor Trio to violinist and composer Louis Spohr—along with playing much of Spohr’s chamber music, Mendelssohn had conducted and continued to perform many of his works with the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig. Mendelssohn wrote to him on February 14, 1846:

Do not be angry with me for having been so bold as to dedicate the enclosed Trio to you without consulting you in advance. Hauptmann assures me that you would receive it well nevertheless, and so I hope he is not mistaken. I would like to have saved the honor for a somewhat longer piece; but then I should have had to put it off, as I so often have had to of late. . . . I no longer wished to delay expressing for once the heartfelt gratitude for so many pleasures, for so much instruction, for which I am indebted to you!

Indeed Spohr received the C minor Trio well—he himself played the piece with the composer on several occasions.

The main theme of the first movement is flexible and well suited for thematic and contrapuntal development; the restless theme, combined with the sustained low pedal tone (C, the cello’s lowest note), contributes a sense of dramatic anticipation to the opening. A particularly effective detail is Mendelssohn’s use of this theme in the coda where the strings play a broader version against the original version in the piano. The expansive second theme is also given an appearance just before the end of the coda, but this time strikingly in a new key (F minor).

The gentle Andante espressivo, in a basic ternary pattern, is reminiscent of the composer’s Lieder ohne Worte (Songs without Words). It is followed by a scherzo that stems from the fairy-world atmosphere of the Octet, but is slightly more agitated and aggressive. Mendelssohn toyed successfully with the form by incorporating the trio theme in the reprise of the scherzo.

The main theme of Mendelssohn’s Finale, with its quick ascent and more prolonged descent, exerted its influence on Brahms, who used it almost literally as the theme of the Scherzo of his F minor Piano Sonata. Another feature of Mendelssohn’s Finale—the inclusion of a contrasting choralelike melody—also found its way into Brahms’s Sonata Finale. Mendelssohn’s characteristic spiritual gesture—similar to the fifteenth-century “Herr Gott, Dich loben alle wir” (common Doxology), which Bach had used in his Cantata 130—creates a solemn mood at its first appearance and returns majestically in the coda to crown the entire work.

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