In my recent post featuring Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Festival Easter Overture, I spoke of composers whose music has been largely under-appreciated, at least by me. Certainly Rimsky-Korsakov is one such composer; Felix Mendelssohn is another.
Apart from his Violin Concerto and a few of his Songs Without Words, I know almost nothing by Mendelssohn. I’m not sure how he escaped my attention. Perhaps it was because history has assigned him a place just below the summit of classical music’s Mount Olympus, and I was unduly influenced by that verdict. Or perhaps it was because his music occupied such a small place – if any at all – in the repertoires of two of my favorite pianists, Van Cliburn and Vladimir Horowitz.
In any case, I’ve recently begun to explore the Mendelssohn oeuvre, especially his chamber music, and I feel like I have stumbled upon a gold mine. A case in point is the Piano Trio No. 2 presented here, which I recently heard for the first time on Seattle’s KING-FM. Written in 1845, just two years before Mendelssohn’s untimely death, this trio was the last of his chamber works published during his lifetime.
Having listened to it many times now, I find myself simply in awe of Mendelssohn’s achievement in this piece. The first movement opens ominously, imparting a sense of turbulence and foreboding. The second movement is of surpassing sweetness, and the third conveys a feeling of unalloyed cheerfulness. A noteworthy feature of the fourth movement is the inclusion of the melody of a sixteenth-century chorale known as “Praise to You, Jesus Christ”, a tune churchgoers (and former churchgoers) may recognize as the Doxology. The first appearance of this melody (at 23:18) lends a solemnity to this movement, while its final, triumphant re-entrance (at 26:10) is an expression of unqualified joy.
I’m also in awe of this performance by the Van Baerle Trio, which is comprised of pianist Hannes Minnaar, violinist Maria Milstein, and cellist Gideon den Herder. Their performance combines uncommon technical precision with a passion worthy of this extraordinary work. The name, incidentally, was taken from Van Baerle Street in Amsterdam, the location of the conservatory where the three of them met as students.