“The Young MENDELSSOHN” = MENDELSSOHN: Piano Quartet in C Minor, Op. 1; Piano Quartet in F Minor, Op. 2; Piano Quartet No. 3 in B Minor, Op. 3; Piano Sextet in D Major (Op. Posth.); Sonata in F Minor for Violin and Fortepiano, Op. 4; Sonata in E-flat Major for Clarinet and Fortepiano; Sonata in C Minor for Viola and Fortepiano – Jaap Schröder, violin and viola / Penelope Crawford, fortepiano / Daniel Foster and Peter Bucknell, violas / Enid Sutherland, cello / Owen Watkins, clarinet / Anne Trout, double bass – Musica Omnia mo0304 (3 discs), 59:25; 65:32; 73:36 ***1/2:
This is the other young Mendelssohn—not the great musical prodigy, the teenager who wrote such masterpieces as the Octet and Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture or near-masterpieces like the first two string quartets and the String Quintet No. 1. Instead, here are works in which Mendelssohn learned the intricate ropes of writing chamber music, from the workaday Piano Quartet in C Minor of 1824 to the remarkably accomplished Piano Quartet in B Minor of 1826, the year of the Octet.
As you’d expect from a composer who made just about daily progress as a youth, there is a big difference between that first Quartet of the fifteen-year-old Mendelssohn and the last. The First Quartet is distinguished, or not, by routine melodies and a thoroughly wooden working out of the same in a first-movement development section that doesn’t even sound especially like Mendelssohn. By the time we get to the Third Quartet, the Mendelssohnian fingerprints are all there, from the memorable tunes of the outer movements to the patented fleet-footed scherzo that hints of fairy dust. Not a masterwork for sure, but a decent, solidly entertaining piece of chamber music.
So, too, is the Sextet, again from Mendelssohn’s fifteenth year. The young composer seems to have worked out some of his problems with thematic development and certainly isn’t thrown by the assignment of writing for an extra string player. This is a bright, buoyant little piece that reminds us that “Felix” means “happy.”
Strange, then, that Mendelssohn favored the minor keys especially in his early works. Of the seven pieces on these CDs, all but two are cast in minor keys. Maybe not so strange, however; in his earlier music Mendelssohn seems to be imitating Classical models such as Beethoven and Mozart. When those masters wrote in the minor key, they usually had something dramatic or emotionally profound to say. The young Mendelssohn appears to be following the musical models, but the emotional heat doesn’t follow; the emotions seem somewhat canned. Fiery or tragic minor-key utterances come much later in Mendelssohn’s career: the Two Piano Trios, the Variations sérieuses, the Violin Concerto, the heart-wrenching String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 80.
Maybe that fact is partly responsible for the relative ineffectiveness of the two string sonatas in this collection. Especially the Viola Sonata of 1824 seems a turgid affair, with a variations finale that goes on about five minutes (or more) too long. The most interesting feature of this movement is what seems like an imitation of the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata, with its obsessive triplet figure in the piano. The Violin Sonata is more successful. With its recitative-like solo passage for the violin at the opening of the first movement, its restlessly agitated last movement, its hectic coda followed by a quiet (pianissimo smorzando) but irresolute cadence, the sonata shows the potential for the kind of emotional depth that Mendelssohn would one day explore in his most personal works. Ultimately, it’s a conventional and not very distinguished piece, as incredible as it is to remember this is the work of a fourteen-year-old.
The bubbly Clarinet Sonata is more attractive, showing a predictable debt to Weber and a canny understanding of the clarinet’s emotive character. This is the only one of the three sonatas that I’d return to with any regularity.
Playing on original instruments, the Atlantis Ensemble emphasizes the cozy Hausmusik nature of these pieces, most of which would probably have gotten their first performances in the Mendelssohn household (unusual as that household was in its ability to hire professional musicians to debut the young composer’s works, even those for orchestra). The Atlantis players turn in sympathetic, alive, technically unimpeachable performances (with an exception noted below). But rival groups playing on modern instruments make this music sound very different, and you may want to explore alternative performances. Most of the pieces have just that much more drive and edge to them in the best modern-instrument performances. Luckily, Penelope Crawford— playing Mendelssohn’s own chief instrument, which is at the heart of all this music—is an excellent pianist with a very good fortepiano at her disposal, a Conrad Graf built in 1835. As fortepianos go, it sounds well across its whole range, including a firmer, far less brittle upper range than you often hear.
The exception I mentioned earlier has to do with the performances of the string sonatas. While Jaap Schröder’s contributions in the piano quartets and sextet are consistently fine, he struggles somewhat in the sonatas. The playing is not as crisp or assured, as on-target as it would have been just a few years ago. Perhaps Schröder, who was eighty-one at the time of these recordings, would have done better to delegate when it came to the sonatas.
The stereo inscriptions from Musica Omnia fill your listening room with attractive sounds, an excellent sense of both depth and spread. These are some of the best-sounding recordings I’ve heard of the music. On balance, this is a fine album to turn to for original-instrument performances of early Mendelssohn, but if you’re in the market, you’ll want to listen to the modern-instrument competition as well.