Saturday, 3 March 2012

Anyone for Fanny?

Have you ever wondered what Fanny Mendelssohn's music sounds like? Does it sound like her brother, Felix's - only less good? Well yes, but then he's a great composer and she isn't - which doesn't stop her from being a good composer. 

There's no full recording of Fanny's Piano Trio D minor, Op.11 for me to link to on YouTube but there are two movements at hand. What's missing are the two middle movements - a tender Andante that sounds like a song-without-words (her brother's famous invention) and a 'Lied' that is, as the name implies, another song-without-words. Neither boasts themes that rise above the mediocre but the Andante especially makes a pleasing impression with some ingenious, subtle textures and its lyrical character. 

The opening movement (which awaits you at the end of a link!) also shows Fanny's consummate skill at writing for a piano trio and is, to my mind, the finest part of the piece by some margin. It begins impressively with a brooding dotted theme played by the strings over swirling piano figuration. The second subject is led by the cello is a tune of a type familiar to lovers of the early Romantics, Mendelssohn and Schumann. The composer sets it over a tremolo, to intensify the yearning and passion implied by its phrases. The linking material is generally faster and less imaginative. What of the development section? This dwells on the dotted opening and its winter-wind accompaniment and builds up quite a head of steam before running out of steam. That unexpected lull turns out to be an artful ruse as the second subject enters, with its attendant tremolos, and the music builds again towards a fierce climax and an explosive start to the recapitulation. Now this is brilliantly-written music and shows what Fanny was capable of - quite a lot. The recapitulation begins with the piano thundering out the tune and the strings swapping into the roll of accompanist. The second subject, when it arrives, is also injected with added passion before being repeatedly much more tenderly - a beautiful effect. Yes, very good stuff. This movement is surely the place to begin giving Fanny Mendelssohn her due. 

The finale opens with improvisatory-sounding flourishes from the pianist before the instrument introduces the engaging gypsy-style tune that is the movement's main theme. Though there's some padding in the bridge passages and the movement is definitely not the equal of the first movement, this genial tune and the spry, cheerful second subject - not to mention Fanny's ear for writing with panache for these three instruments - holds the interest. The tremolo-lit second subject from the first movement eventually steals back in - a pleasing application of cyclic form - and prompts a triumphant climax. 

Wonder what else she was capable of?

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