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Recital Media Review Print

The Truly Complete Music for 'Cello by the Mendelssohns

January 1, 2015 - Williamsburg, MA:

Felix (1809-47) Mendelssohn & Fanny (1805-47) Mendelssohn Hensel, The Complete Works for Cello & Piano: Felix: Albumblatt in B minor (newly completed), Lied ohne Worte (Romance sans paroles) in D, Op. 109, Sonatas No. 1 in B-flat, Op. 45, and No. 2 in D, Op. 58, Variations concertantes in D, Op. 17 (with separate reconstructed original Variation 4), and Variations [brilliantes] in A, with 'cello part by Josef Merk (reconstructed, on bonus disc); and Fanny: Capriccio in A-flat (on bonus disc), Fantasia in G minor; Nancy Green, 'cello, R. Larry Todd, piano; JRI Recordings J138, © 2013, TT 75:48, bonus disc [20:19], $22.00. Listing is alphabetical, not recorded order.

These works, here recorded more or less in chronological order (with the 1835 Albumblatt used to separate the two sonatas from 1839 and 1843), were (nearly?) all written for specific 'cellists; Felix's string instrument was the violin, but Fanny appears not to have played one. Their younger brother Paul (1812-74) was a 'cellist, however, and became a very accomplished amateur one, although he followed in their father's banking profession rather than having a career in music; Felix's Variations concertantes are dedicated to him as are both of Fanny's works for the instrument. Felix's Albumblatt was written for the famous 'cellist Julius Rietz, brother of his violin instructor Eduard. The Lied onhe Worte was written for the French 'cellist Lisa Christiani, the first female 'cello virtuoso, who owned a 1700 Stradivarius instrument, in 1845 when she appeared at the Leipzig Gewandhaus; she died at 26 from cholera contracted during a tour in Siberia. Sonata No. 2 was dedicated to Russian/Polish Count Mateusz Wielhorski. Felix knew a lot of 'cellists in various countries whom he met during his tours and travels, including the most famous one of the time: Belgian François-Adrien Servais, grandfather of the famous Parisian late-19th/early20th-century salon hostess Misia Natanson/Edwards/Sert. His Variations [brilliantes] in A Major were composed for and collaboratively with Josef Merk, whom he met in Vienna, to play with him in concert there on September 13, 1830; the piano part has survived, but not the 'cello part. Felix's Sonata No. 1 is without a dedication in the printed score, although it is often said to be dedicated to Paul as well. (I reviewed earlier a recording of most of Felix's works by a different duo.)

Todd is Arts and Sciences Professor of Music at Duke University and has focused on the Mendelssohns, having written the definitive biography of Felix: Mendelssohn: A Life in Music (Oxford University Press, 2003), which was named "Best Biography of the Year" by the Association of American Publishers; its German translation (Reclam/Carus Verlag, 2008) was awarded a Deutsche Musikeditions Preis, and a biography of Fanny: Fanny Hensel, the Other Mendelssohn (Oxford University Press, 2010) that was awarded the Nicholas Slonimsky Prize from ASCAP. He has also edited critical editions of some compositions. He is a graduate of Yale, where he received his Ph.D. and also studied piano with the late Lillian Kallir at its School of Music. A selection of reviewers' comments and a list of books and editions is given on pages 38-39 of the accompanying booklet. He is perhaps the greatest living Mendelssohn scholar, in the USA at least, with matching performance credentials.

Boston-born and Chapel Hill-based Green is a full-time free-lance performer and instructor who studied with Leonard Rose, Lynn Harrell, Mstislav Rostropovich, Jacqueline du Pré, and Johannes Goritzki. She has focused heavily on recording, including some previously unrecorded works. (I have reviewed two of her CDs: music by Paul Desenne, and one of Spanish and Latin American music, in these pages.) A complete discography is given on pages 42-43 of the accompanying booklet. Others have reviewed local live performances by her in these pages.

The performance here by these eminently qualified musicians is both exquisite and sublime. The partnership is extraordinary, the balance perfect. The interpretations are extremely sensitive. They take a more restrained and more carefully-nuanced Classical era approach to the music than the more commonly heard aggressive Late-Romantic one: Mendelssohn was a known admirer of Bach and the primacy of melody common in the Baroque and Classical eras; he was not known for emotional effusion. The gorgeous melodies dominate here.

The set is presented in a book with hard covers, the disc attaching to a soft spindle in the center of the inside of its front one. A color reproduction of a July 1847 watercolor by Felix of Lucerne, Switzerland, is found on the front cover, on the front of the tri-fold insert that accompanies the bonus disc, which comes inside a separate clear soft plastic sleeve, and on the face of both discs. The back cover of the book has the track listing with timings for the main disc, which also appear on the front cover of the staple-bound accompanying booklet; none are given anywhere for the bonus disc (Variations [brilliantes]: 13:04; Capriccio: 7:09), on which both works, as well as those with reconstructions on the main one, are world première recordings.

Notes by Todd under the title "Mendelssohn and the Cello," accompanied by sepia-toned photographs of the composers, a page of music score (the one showing the original Variation 4 of Op. 17 stricken by Felix), the title page of another score, and Christiani's Strad 'cello scattered throughout, are found on pages 2-17 of the 48-page booklet whose back "cover" is glued to the inside of the back cover of the book. The German translation of the notes (pages 18-35) by Katharina Uhde is appropriately acknowledged; the same photos are reproduced in the appropriate spots, though curiously not always in the same sizes. Bios of the musicians in both languages accompanied by color photos are found on pages 36-43. Color reproductions of watercolors by Felix of two of his residences occupy pages 44 and 45, with a note in both languages about Felix's art activities on page 46. The outside side edges of all pages bear color reproductions of narrow vertical sections of the front cover watercolor. The whole is a classy, high-quality product, designed by greenink-studio.com. A note from JRI Recordings at the bottom of page 47 lists the environmentally-friendly materials used. Acknowledgements and credits are also found on this page. Unlike some similar products, it is the exact same height and width as the standard jewel case, but the soft plastic sleeve of the bonus disc and its insert is slightly taller, which can create some problems for some shelving units.

This is a beautiful product and a beautiful performance, but one piece of information is missing: there is nothing about either of the instruments. In an age when historically informed performance practices and the use of period instruments or replicas thereof are becoming increasingly common for music of the Romantic period, this is of particular interest. (I have heard the second sonata performed live with a period piano, a Tröndlin made in Leipzig in 1830.) Recording took place in the Meadowmont Studios in Chapel Hill in 2011 and 2012, which suggests the careful and lengthy gestation of the product.