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This concert by the Claremont Trio in the beloved Ernest Nelson Music Room in the East Duke Building on Duke University's East Campus concluded an entire day of musicological exploration. A mini-symposium in the afternoon focused on the discovery that the Easter Sonata for piano, previously attributed to Felix Mendelssohn, was actually composed by his sister Fanny Hensel. This featured Notre Dame professor Susan Youens, a specialist in 19th century German music, Duke's R. Larry Todd, one of the foremost Mendelssohn scholars and author of definitive biographies of both siblings, and Duke Ph.D. candidate Angelia Mace who did the detective work to pin down the original manuscript. Pianist Andrea Lam of the Claremont Piano Trio played the American premier of the correctly reattributed "Easter Sonata" during the symposium and repeated it at the evening concert, an off-series extra concert of the Chamber Music season of Duke Performances.
As members of the wealthy Mendelssohn Bartholdy family, both Felix and Fanny received extensive musical training. This was progressive; however, both social class and patriarchy dictated expectations for Fanny to follow music only as a serious hobby within the family. Felix allowed some of her earlier works to be published under his name, a tribute to the high quality of her works. She only began to publish under her own name in 1846, the year before her death.
The Piano Trio in D minor, Op. 11 by Fanny M. Hensel (1805-1847) opened the Claremont Trio's concert. It was her last composition and served as a birthday present for her sister, Rebecka. The Mendelssohn Family published it in 1850. It is a vigorous work filled with fine, skillfully crafted themes and Romantic ardor. Virtuosic scoring for the keyboard is present in all four movements. The large scale first movement is in classic sonata form and marked "Allegro molto vivace." All of its themes share rhythmic, harmonic, or rhythmic patterns. The shaping of the cello's bass line is especially well done. The slow movement begins gently but builds in momentum. Fanny imaginatively ties the faster portion to the movement's beginning. She marks the third movement "Lied: Allegretto." According to Susan Halpern's excellent program notes, Fanny often used "Lied" in her piano works to stress the "lyrical character of the music to come." While this, the shortest movement, is playful it is not a true scherzo much less like one of Felix's quicksilver miracles. The opening of the finale is striking. It "begins with an improvisatory long, rhapsodic fantasia-like piano solo marked ad libitum." The pianist is free to set the tempo. "When the strings enter, the tempo accelerates, but it soon reverts to the opening tempo." The tempos alternate for the rest of the movement as the music is "by turns contemplative (first theme), agitated (second theme), and lively (third theme)." The music builds to a powerful climax.
The Claremont Trio, pianist Andrea Lam, violinist Emily Bruskin, and her twin sister cellist Julia Bruskin gave a beautifully judged, passionate performance. Lam balanced perfectly with the strings and was most engaging in the rhapsodic opening to the last movement. Julia's cello produced some very rich low sonorities. All three played with very clear articulation.
The Nelson Music Room has been a favorite venue since I first attended concerts there in the early 1970s. At that time, a large rug covered much of the floor under the downstairs seating.Since it was renovated, the hall's sound has been much too bright. The current addition of a smaller rug has helped but I suspect the old chairs were more sound absorbent. Neither those nor their current replacements were or are models of comfort.
The repeat of Hensel's newly reattributed Ostersonate (Easter Sonata) (1828) was preceded by Angela Mace giving brief comments from the stage. She said "If R. Larry Todd is the dean of Mendelssohn scholars, then, as Chris Vitiello at IndyWeek has said* I am the Indiana Jones of music!” That was Chris Vitiello at the IndyWeek: Mace recounted her discovery which was available in expanded form in her excellent program note. She had heard a 1972 recording of the Easter Sonata by Eric Heidsieck in 2008 at which time it was assumed to be by Felix. According to Françoise Tillard in Fanny Mendelssohn (1996), the original manuscript was in a private collection whose owner would not allow anyone see it. Fanny's diary mentions it, while a letter to Fanny dated August 19, 1829, recounts Felix having played the first movement of her Easter Sonata.
Mace writes "the Easter Sonata was begun around Easter 1828, in Berlin." While it is not programmatic, the music shows influences from the revival of J. S. Bach's St. Matthew Passion which Felix had rescued from languishing manuscripts. Perhaps this helped the piece to get credited to him. According to Mace, Beethoven was a major compositional model for Fanny and this is readily heard in the first movement. Bach's influence shows in the second movement's form as a prelude and fugue in E. Mace describes the third movement as "a darkly tinged Scherzo - quintessentially 'Mendelssohnian." Passion influences are reflected in "the earthquake music…rumbling tremolos in the bass" during the stormy fourth movement which ends with a fantasy on the Easter chorale, "Christe, du Lamm Gottes" (Christ, thou Lamb of God). I suspect the program misspelled "strepitoso" as "strepito," Allegro con strepitoso would mean a boisterous or noisy allegro.
Pianist Lam gave a confident, riveting performance of the work with superbly judged dynamics, phrasing, and choice of tonal palette. There was nothing "demure" or feminine about the sound of the assertive first movement. The score was powerful without sounding derivative of its model. The musical lines of the second movement were spun out in a seamless elegance. Lam's playing of the lively scherzo kept it from sounding like a mere copy of the type of Fairy music Fanny's brother seemed to conjure effortlessly. Lam brought out Fanny's originality. Despite its boisterous designation, the cumulative effect of Lam's playing of the finale was seraphic. A friend said it was like a benediction.
Much like the case of Schubert's two piano trios, Piano Trio No. 2 in C minor, Op. 66 (1845) by Felix Mendelssohn is less often encountered in performance than its less mature companion. This mature late work is more serious than its predecessor. The composer's challenge is to shoe-horn Romantic expression within Classical forms. The first movement contrasts and develops a darkly passionate theme against a lyrical theme. An elegant, simple slow movement is followed by one of Felix's characteristic elfin scherzos. The finale's first subject links it back to the emotional turmoil of the first movement. Development builds until a chorale is introduced. According to Melvin Berger in Guide to Chamber Music "Eric Werner traced it back to "Von Deinen Thron" from the 1551 Geneva Psalter." This is woven with the principal theme into a powerful coda.
The Claremont Trio pulled out all the stops for the first movement delivering one of the most intense I have ever heard. The string players especially threw themselves very physically into the interpretation. It was a change from the more restrained, classical approach I have most often heard in performance. The playing of the other three movements were more in line with tradition. The second movement was polished and beautifully balanced while the lighter-than-air scherzo really took wing. This was Felix at his most irresistible. The energy of the first movement was harnessed to forge an overwhelming climax. Brava!
*Ascription to the quote about Mace being Indiana Jones was added 9/12/12