Many of us remember Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1947) today mostly for a fairly small set of his most popular works. But let’s remember that Robert Schumann, the most influential music critic of his time as well as one of its greatest composers, called Mendelssohn “the Mozart of the nineteenth century, the most brilliant musician, who looks most clearly through the contradictions of the present, and who for the first time reconciles them.” While the “contradictions” of the first half of the 1800s may not have been the same ones we wrestle with today, Mendelssohn’s music, like Mozart’s, continues to inspire and beautify the lives of classical music lovers right up to the present day, 165 years after the composer’s death in 1847 at the age of 38.
I fell in love with Mendelssohn’s music when as a young piano student I learned his “Venetian Boat Song No. 2” with its gorgeous, simple melody and starkly romantic mood. I marveled at the composer’s ability to evoke so much feeling with such a small number of notes. At the other end of the scale (so to speak), according to R. J. Stove, Jean Sibelius considered Mendelssohn one of the two finest orchestrators who ever lived. Two such different manifestations of genius certainly suggest the presence of an extraordinary musical mind.
A version of the latter quality is apparent even in his small chamber works. Mendelssohn’s two piano trios are written for the standard lineup of violin, cello, and piano, but while they may employ only three instruments, no one could accuse them of possessing a small number of notes. Dense and busily coruscating piano parts, in particular, layer several movements of these works so fully that at times you can almost imagine you’re in the presence of a small orchestra. The renderings the other night by Trio Desto of the Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 49, and the Piano Trio No. 2 in C minor, Op. 66, at a Harvardwood-sponsored concert at the Down Town Association, brought out the poignant power as well as the exquisite musicality of these works.
Trio Desto consists of violinist Rebecca Racusin, cellist Jessica Sammis, and pianist Berenika, who executed the thunderous clouds of piano notes in Trio No. 1’s first movement while locking in closely with the string parts. The trio executed the ocean waves of the lyrical but dramatic second movement with graceful sensitivity, went on to make the Scherzo’s fast passages look easy, and offered a stately yet emotional realization of the Finale.
The first movement (Allegro) of Trio No. 2 begins with one of these works’ many displays of Mendelssohn’s fondness for octave-apart violin-and-cello unison passages, executed here with feeling and precision. The movement encompasses a variety of riches: celestial sixteenth-note passages on the piano, a march-like section descending into an interregnum with a largo feel, a rise to a thunderous close. The Andante second movement displayed Ms. Sammis’s beautiful tone in the cello’s lower register, and the Finale lived up to its “Allegro appassionato” notation, showcasing amid its insistent rhythms the trio’s precise timing and the musicians’ evident feel for one another’s playing, a kind of sensitivity so pleasing to see in young players. Though these artists are all young and (to me) unknown, they played like they’d been collaborating for many years, leaving me with a refreshed admiration for these wonderful works.