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There is nothing in Felix Mendelssohn’s curriculum vitae to show even touches of Romantic angst. And, sadly (so to speak), that he died young, very young (at 38, after a series of small strokes), provided him none of the advantages that posterity has bestowed on the greatest premature leave-takers, Mozart and Schubert. Other roadblocks to top-level immortality: he was happily married and, worst of all, he was born rich. Felix (“Happy,” in Latin) was not only successful as a composer, conductor, and pianist. He was a master chess-player, handsome, and socially adept to the point of becoming the beau of the fashionable balls he attended in his native Germany and in the countries where he enjoyed traveling – and, by the way, painting: he did that well, too – Italy, and especially Britain, which maintained its admiration of his music longer than any other country, in large part because he wrote oratorios, a native specialty which had had no major champion/practitioner since Handel. There are no tragic romantic legends to be spun from such a life. And I have never heard it said, as it is – constantly, tediously, gratuitously – about Mozart and Schubert, that the world was robbed of further artistic revelations with Mendelssohn’s early death.
Mendelssohn would eventually be ejected from the composers’ pantheon for not being “deep,” just as he was venerated in his lifetime for being perfect. By the late-1930s little of his once-omnipresent music was being performed in public anywhere (none, of course, in Nazi Germany and its dominions), aside from the Midsummer Night’s Dream score, the “Italian” Symphony, the E-minor Violin Concerto (ever a virtuoso favorite), and the occasional performance in England by the local choral society of the beloved oratorio Elijah, in a simplified version. Of his chamber works, only the teenaged composer's Octet, an incomparable party piece for two first-rate quartets, and possibly the later D-minor Piano Trio, a staple of the ad hoc superstar ensemble since at least the days of Thibaud-Cortot-Casals, surfaced with any frequency during the first-half of the 20th century.
But at some time during the “explosion of classical music” (remember that?) launched by the advent of the long-playing record and continued by the CD, with their concomitant of bringing to every interested hearth and home every piece of music ever written, the appearance of masses of genuinely wretched music spurred an eventual reexamination of the neglected majority portion of the Mendelssohn oeuvre – and his upgrading. Mendelssohn came to be appreciated for what he always was: a very fine composer, worthy of a permanent place among the Romantic masters.
In an 1840 review of Mendelssohn’s D-minor Piano Trio, Robert Schumann compared his contemporary to the greats of the past. “The storm of recent years is finally beginning to abate, and we must admit that it has washed several pearls ashore,” Schumann wrote. “Mendelssohn, as one of the many sons of this age, must have had to struggle with and often listen to the insipid declaration of some ignorant critics that ‘the true golden age of music is behind us’ – although it probably affected him less – and has so distinguished himself that we may well say: He is the Mozart of the 19th century, the most brilliant of musicians, the one who most clearly perceives the contradictions of the age, and the first to reconcile them.”
The first of his Piano Trios, the present one, dates from 1839; the second, in C minor; from 1846. No. 1 remains the more frequently encountered of the two, for the rather simple reason that it is more graciously melodious and less concerned with harmonic complexity and contrapuntal devices, although the later work is increasingly finding willing performers and audiences. The D-minor Trio begins with a grandly arching, aching melody, announced by the cello, which leads into the violin’s second theme in A major, the entire movement carried forward in what seems a single, broad melodic span, alternatingly gently elegiac and thunderously (notably in the piano) dramatic. It is nonetheless appreciative of the formal verities of the time, exposition, development, recapitulation, coda. It is the easiest of music to listen to, but Mendelssohn demands utmost skill of his players – but without the audience’s awareness of difficulty, unlike the physical torments to which Schumann and Brahms subject their performers in the subsequent generation of piano trios. While the Andante continues the somewhat sad mood of the opening movement, it is more short-breathed, with a contrasting, passionate middle section. The Scherzo is prototypical Mendelssohn faerie music, but with extra punch, the sprites having buffed up since those of the Midsummer Night’s Dream overture. The finale is marked “Allegro assai appassionato” but it is indeed less “appassionato” than the opening movement, particularly with the interruption, twice, by a broad, throbbing melody of great melancholy yearning.