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Cello Sonata No. 1 in B flat major, Op. 45 [23:39]
Cello Sonata No. 2 in D major, Op. 58 [24:53]
Variations Concertantes for Cello & Piano Op. 17 [8:30]
Song without Words for Cello & Piano, Op. 109 [4:20]
Albumblatt in E minor, Op. 117 [2:09]
Fanny MENDELSSOHN HENSEL (1805-1847)
Fantasia in G minor for Cello & Piano [5:38]
Capriccio in A-flat Major for Cello & Piano [6:41]
Johannes Moser (cello)
Alasdair Beatson (piano)
rec. 2018, Recording Studio Drenthe, Valthermand, Netherlands
Reviewed in surround sound.
PENTATONE PTC5186781 SACD [75:54]

Cellist Johannes Moser writes a nice note in the booklet for this issue. It evokes one of the celebrated “Sunday Music Sessions” at the Mendelssohn family home in Berlin, where one could hear new music by Felix and Fanny, including pieces such as several of these played by their cellist brother Paul. There is a photo of the house as it looked in 1900, and the piano used by Beatson is an 1837 Érard such as the family owned. Almost all of us hear this music now in concert halls or on disc, so in one way this is a reminder that it belongs to a nineteenth-century tradition of domestic music-making. Except of course that the presiding geniuses in this domestic scene were, well, musical geniuses. And there is nothing amateur about the music-making here of course – far from it.

The programme gives us all of Felix Mendelssohn’s works for cello and piano, the two sonatas and the three shorter pieces. Sister Fanny is represented by two (very good) pieces for the combination, so just about justifying the disc’s title “Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn”. Her works are placed in the middle of the sequence on disc, sandwiched by her brother’s sonatas. They give the disc an advantage over my previous favourite in Felix’s items, which Richard Lester and Susan Tomes recorded for Hyperion thirty years ago.

The First Cello Sonata is a three-movement work whose outer movements are rather similar, almost suggesting a large ABA structure. Those outer movements are full of fast restless invention, and Beatson’s instrument sounds light-toned – and perhaps has a light action – which is well-suited to the rapid figuration required. His partner matches him throughout. They generate a sense of unstoppable momentum, taking the exposition repeat and thus adding two and a half minutes to the 9:09 Lester and Tomes take for the movement. Paul Mendelssohn is always called an amateur cellist (he went on to head the family banking firm), but he must have been pretty skilled nonetheless. The middle movement Andante is somewhere between a halting scherzo and a moderately slow movement, and the players judge that ambiguity very well. The finale is a brilliantly executed rondo (Allegro assai) with some fleeting lyrical episodes, though hardly enough to justify the notes calling it “hymnic”.

The Second Cello Sonata is the more substantial work, and not only because it is in four movements. It is also technically more difficult, and certainly sounds more concertante-like. (If we wanted a Mendelssohn cello concerto, maybe someone could orchestrate the piano part of this sonata.) It bursts into action with a stirring 6/8 theme leaping around the cello. The torrential piano part, played on this historical instrument, does not threaten to drown the softer-voiced cello, which is balanced to sound a little in front of its partner anyway. There is an especially joyous coda from both players. The Allegretto scherzando is the sort of thing this composer does uniquely well, lightly tripping music given just the rhythmic lift it needs at times. The solemn slow movement is a lyrical gem, with nicely polished tone from Moser and sensitive support from the spread chords of Beatson’s accompaniment, while the finale gets extrovert virtuosity from both. You can hear why this splendid work is placed first on the CD.

Felix’s three smaller pieces are less consequential, but still attractive, ideal no doubt for one’s domestic music salon occasions with friends. His little Albumblatt is a 61-bar fragment (it ends, if that is the word, on a dominant pause) and is quite exquisite. Fanny Mendelssohn’s Fantasia in G Minor opens magically too, a touching tune in the piano with cello accompaniment, then those roles are reversed. The notes observe that this “reciprocal accompaniment without a schematic dialogue bestows its own charms”. The Capriccio in A-flat Major is no less interesting, and doubtless Paul was proud to receive the dedication of both.

Johannes Moser and Alasdair Beatson play persuasively and with high commitment, and the excellent SACD recording captures them very well. The distinctive colours of both cello and the early piano are very evident. An excellent issue which is now probably the first choice for the repertoire.

Roy Westbrook

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