MENDELSSOHN: L’œuvre pour violoncello et piano = Sonata No. 2 in D Major, Op. 58; Variations concertantes in D Major, Op. 17; Albumblatt; Song without Words in D Major, Op. 109; Sonata No. 1 in B-flat Major, Op. 45 – Gary Hoffman, cello/ David Selig, p. – la dolce volta LDV 05, 62:13 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi]****:
As the opus numbers suggest, Mendelssohn wrote for the cello early in his career and returned to it on different occasions, most notably around 1840, when he was at the height of his creative powers, penning his two sonatas for the instrument. Two of these compositions, the First Sonata of 1838 and Variations concertantes of 1829, were written for his brother Paul, who on the evidence provided by the music must have been quite accomplished.
The brief (eight minutes’ duration) Variations is not the young Mendelssohn at his most imaginative, though it sings sweetly and provides some bravura show for both instruments, the cello hardly getting a note in edgewise in Variations 3 and especially 4, where the pianist leaps all over the keyboard, the cellist discretely plucking away in sedate pizzicato mode. Variation 6 restores the balance, the cello declaiming boldly, center stage, in fiery B minor. Variation 8 brings us back to a purling D major and ends with quiet filigree work from the piano.
At the other end of the timeline is the Song without Words of 1845, again in D major. It’s typical of Mendelssohn’s character pieces of the same name. The work has a rocking rhythm suggestive of a cradle song but is tinged with sadness as it turns sharply to the minor key, including an extended, more troubled middle section, a remembrance of which briefly darkens the quiet end of the piece. It encompasses an eventful four minutes.
The Albumblatt (“Album Leaf,” 1835) is just that, a melancholy little piece but with brief flashes of a lighter mood. That takes us up to the meat of the program, the two sonatas. The First seems to me more patently dramatic and “masculine,” closer to Beethoven in spirit than the Second, which is Mendelssohn at his most outgoing and confident. (Interestingly, in the notes to this recording, in the form of a series of interview questions posed to the performers, cellist David Hoffman says, “There is much of Schubert in the First Sonata. . . .” I agree that the Second Sonata is bigger in profile, maybe even “orchestral” as Hoffman maintains, but I find Schubertian lyricism has little place in the more tough-minded First Sonata.) The sonatas’ contrasting nature makes them an interesting pair to program.
I’ve always preferred the Second Sonata (1843) with its irresistibly buoyant Molto allegro finale. But the emotionally charged performance of Hoffman and Australian pianist David Selig has helped me appreciate the First Sonata somewhat more, which I guess is a pretty strong recommendation in itself. Still, the Second Sonata—with four big movements, including one of Mendelssohn’s finer scherzos and a slow movement that’s like a song from the heart—makes the larger statement.
Some of the finest cellists of today have essayed this music, and it’s available on disc in a number of performances that have gotten their fair share of critical praise—by the likes of Lynn Harrell, Misha Maisky, Steven Isserlis, Antonio Meneses, and Paul Watkins. (By the way, the Issrelis recording, originally on RCA and now available from Arkivmusic.com, provides interesting contrast with just about any other recording you might choose, since Issrelis’s partner, the excellent Melvin Tan, plays the keyboard part on fortepiano). I’m not here to make an ultimate recommendation but instead to say that even in this fine company, Gary Hoffman and David Selig make a strong impression. Hoffman’s sound throughout is big, robust, but singing, and Selig is not only virtuosic but equally attuned to the varied emotional strains in this music. The recording from L’Église Notre-Dame du Bon Secours in Paris is as robust as the playing, no churchly chill or post-echo here.