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Fanny MENDELSSOHN-HENSEL (1799-1847)
Das Jahr - 12 Charakterstücke für das Forte-Piano (1841)
Solveig Wikman (piano)
rec. Dal Segno Studio, 2005
NOSAG CD228 [55:53]

In 1846, Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel wrote a letter to her brother. She informed him that she was going against the express wishes of their father and Felix himself, and had begun to publish her own compositions, something in which she had the full support of her husband, the painter and illustrator, Wilhelm Hensel. Her publication of music was soon overshadowed by her untimely death, following which the task of publishing her music was agreed to be overseen by Felix, before his own early death.

Das Jahr is undoubtedly one of Fanny’s finest compositional achievements. In many ways it is more original and forward-looking than Felix's piano compositions. They point more to Schumann and Thalberg. Even the idea of depicting the months of the year in the form of twelve pieces was unique at the time. Das Jahr, composed in 1841, is a sort of musical diary of when Fanny and Wilhelm were in Italy and especially Rome in 1839 and 1840. The pieces soon fell into neglect after hers and Felix’s death. Each of the pieces was written on a different coloured piece of paper, and illustrated with a sketch and a short poem by her husband.
January, one of the last of the cycle to be composed, can be seen as a kind of overture. It begins rather sombrely before quoting some of the themes of the subsequent months, especially May. February follows with a lilting scherzo-like theme to depict La festa dei Moccoletti, a candle-featuring event at Roman carnivals; there is the sound of pealing bells. March is reminiscent of the trips the pair made around Rome and of the bad weather they encountered; a trip to St Peter’s is brought to life through the inclusion of the chorale Christ ist erstanden which is then elaborated on in a set of variations. April was a month of meetings and making new friends, especially with Charles Gounod; this leads to some of the most joyous music of the cycle. May is filled with the sights and sounds of springtime, as is borne out in the piece’s subtitle Frühlingslied (spring song). June combines a Chopinesque nocturne with a serenade to depict the composer’s sadness of leaving Rome and her journey to Naples. She would write there that her “heart was still in Rome; only my eyes were in Naples”. July has a dark and even depressive nature; it recalls how Fanny felt about being separated from Wilhelm. A sense of foreboding about the rumblings of Mount Vesuvius can be heard in the bass. August was when they returned home; this can be heard in the brighter good-humoured march-like piece. It is in pieces such as September that the true virtuosic nature of Fanny’s compositional style comes to the fore. The rich piano writing, arpeggios and hand-crossing give the impression that more than one player is performing the piece. October is a depiction of the street life of Venice, with the cries of street traders and the march-like character capturing the military presence in the city at the time. The scene painted by November is quite sombre. The movement is elegiac and romantic in nature, but this leads into the more agitated section which could depict the adversities of the weather. December suggests a time of preparation for the festive season whilst being dominated by the choral Vom Himmel hoch, so loved by Fanny’s brother. The work ends with the Nachspiel, which employs the choral Das alte Jahr vergangen ist. This makes an ideal summation to the work and shows Fanny at her best. Beautifully written, it forms a sort of summing up of the whole year.

Composed at about the same time as Das Jahr was being thought about, Abschied von Rom is a wistful work that laments the decision to leave Rome, the city Fanny had grown to love, and continue their journey on to Naples. It has a charm all of its own but fits in well with the longer work, and has many of the same characteristics of longing.

I have enjoyed Solveig Wikman’s interpretation. This disc makes an excellent companion to her disc of other piano pieces by Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel (STERLING CDA 1699-2). I do, however, have a slight preference for the recording made by Els Biesemans for Genuin (GEN 12244). Not only does she offers both versions of June, but also performs on a Pleyel fortepiano which dates from only ten years after the work was completed; this gives a different dimension to the work. However, if you prefer the sound of a grand piano, and there are many who do—in this case is a Bechstein model E—well, this is the recording for you.

Solveig Wikman has written her own notes for this recording, matching up the months represented in the music with entries in Fanny’s travel diaries. The notes are more comprehensive than those for the Biesemans recording, with the addition of the diary entries offering the listener that extra insight into Fanny’s character and the music she composed.

Stuart Sillitoe

Disc contents

Januar (Ein Traum) [3:40]
Februar (Scherzo) [3:28]
März [4:53]
April (Capriccioso) [3:25]
Mai (Frühlingslied) [2:58]
Juni (Serenade) [5:49]
Juli (Serenade) [3:09]
August [4:26]
September (Am Flusse) [3:18]
Oktober [3:53]
November [6:01]
Dezember [5:03]
Nachspiel (Choral) [2:10]
Abschied von Rom (1840) [3:39]


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