Piano Trio No. 2 in C Minor, op. 66
violin, cello, piano
notes by Anthony Suter
I. Allegro energico e con fuoco
II. Andante espressivo
III. Scherzo: Molto allegro quasi presto
IV. Finale: Allegro appassionato
First published: 1845.
Felix Mendelssohn’s second piano trio is a late work. It is, in fact the last chamber work that the composer lived to see published. It was composed and premiered in 1845, only two years before his untimely death at the age of 38.
The opening movement is cast in a traditional sonata form, with the first theme featuring a rather foreboding, dark, and almost stormy emotional tone. The pianist has an especially challenging time in this movement, as Mendelssohn himself was a fine pianist and often gave the piano the lion’s share of the work in his chamber music. This movement is particularly indicative of Mendelssohn’s rich harmonic language, constantly shifting and unfolding into unexpected places. The intensity of the opening is allayed by the appearance of a more delicate and tuneful second theme, and Mendelssohn deftly uses this contrast to keep the ear off-balance for the remainder of the movement, readily shifting between the two masterfully and dramatically.
Simple, lyrical, and beautiful—the second movement serves as a much-needed respite from the wild harmonic explorations and dramatic outbursts of the opening Allegro energico. The piano begins alone and introduces us to the main theme unaccompanied by the two strings. This textural contrast is especially effective; when the violinist and cellist do enter several bars later, we have almost forgotten they were on stage.
The Scherzo is the most technically demanding portion of the work. It is a tightly wound tour-de-force, equally challenging to each player. The intricate counterpoint and constant trading of lines among members of the ensemble endow this particular movement with a kinetic force much unlike the other movements. Particularly brilliant is the ending, where the piece rather quietly and quite unexpectedly “unwinds” itself, setting the stage for the finale.
The final movement, indicated as Allegro appassionato, is a rollicking fast movement laced with a great deal of lyrical beauty, as well. A certain amount of gravitas is present, in no small part due to Mendelssohn’s quotation of a chorale melody (“Gelobet seist Du, Jesu Christ”, or “Praise to You, Jesus Christ”) that dates back to a 16th-century psalter. In some sense, it seems almost an amalgam of the kinds of writing exemplified in the first three movements. There are some interesting technical demands; some very beautiful, singing moments; and not a small amount of the minor-mode angst of the opening of the work. These multiple elements are marshaled elegantly and masterfully. Near the end, the chorale tune returns, now in a triumphant C major, as if to cast away the storm of the beginning.