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Trio No 2 in C Minor, Op. 66 for violin, cello, and piano

April 19, 2009 – Elmar Oliveira, violin; Rafael Figueroa, cello; John Novacek, piano

Felix Mendelssohn was born 200 years ago into a wealthy, German Jewish family. His grandfather was the celebrated philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, and his father, Abraham, was a successful banker. Raised in Berlin, Felix and his beloved sister Fanny were both formidable child prodigies, brought up in a rich cultural milieu where their talents could flourish. Mendelssohn’s remarkable musical abilities were encouraged by his loving parents, who enabled him to hear his early pieces performed at home by a private orchestra for their associates, who included the intellectual elite of Berlin. By his middle teens Mendelssohn was composing works of stunning maturity and originality. His Octet for Strings and Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, composed at 16 and 17 respectively, rank among his most celebrated and popular works.

In addition to his compositional talent, Mendelssohn was blessed with a warm, benevolent personality and a wide range of extra-musical enthusiasms. His close friend, the conductor/composer Sir Jules Benedict wrote of him, “In society, apart from musical subjects, nothing could be more entertaining or animated than Mendelssohn’s conversation on literary topics. The works of Shakespeare and other eminent British poets were quite as familiar to him as those of his own country; and, although his accent was slightly tinctured by his German origin, he spoke as well as wrote the English language with great facility and purity. He sketched from nature and also painted very well; and, indeed, he might be said to possess every social accomplishment.”

Among his many enthusiasms was a lifelong passion for the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Mendelssohn made history as a conductor when, at the age of 20, he presided over a performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, the first major European revival of Bach’s long-neglected music. Mendelssohn’s love of Bach is reflected in the noble chorale tune that dominates much of the final movement of the Piano Trio in C Minor.

His second piano trio, Op. 66, was completed in 1845, two years before the end of his short life. The piece is laid out on a large scale, featuring soaring, lyrical melodies and intricate, virtuosic passagework for the three instruments. Mendelssohn, who played piano in the first performances, was joined by the famous violinist/composer Louis Spohr, to whom the piece is dedicated.

The first movement starts in a restless, urgent hush, the mysterious atmosphere propelled by rapidly rising and falling figures in the piano. This section eventually gives way to a sunnier, more rhapsodic duet for violin and cello. The atmosphere vacillates between emotional poles, culminating in a stormy, C minor coda.

In contrast to the agitation of the first movement, Mendelssohn offers a warmly reassuring Song Without Words in E-flat major as the basis of the second movement. Throughout his life Mendelssohn composed Lieder ohne Worte for solo piano, often as gifts to his sister Fanny. This movement begins with a glowing piano solo, strongly reminiscent of the style of these intimate works, and continues with a gentle, lilting duet for violin and cello.

The adjective “Mendelssohnian,” signifying youthfulness and gossamer, fairyland textures, is well-applied to the third movement, a minor key Scherzo, which Mendelssohn himself described as “a trifle nasty to play.” The brisk, sparkling music provides challenges for all of the instrumentalists but particularly the pianist. Like many of Mendelssohn’s scherzos, the short movement whizzes along at breakneck speed, finally vanishing down a misty, pizzicato-strewn path.

The spirited finale strings together a series of contrasting themes, beginning with a sweeping cello melody in C minor. The most striking of the themes is the noble, chorale-like third episode. Although the tune is apparently of Mendelssohn’s own invention, it is similar in atmosphere and harmonization to many of Bach’s chorales. The movement builds to a crowning restatement of the chorale tune in a glorious C major, bringing the piece – and Parlance Chamber Concerts’ second season – to a grand, celebratory conclusion.

By Michael Parloff

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