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Fanny MENDELSSOHN-HENSEL (1805-1847)
Piano Quartet in A flat major H-U 55 (1822) [18:14]
String Quartet in E flat major H-U 277 (1834) [19:18]
Piano Trio in D minor Op. 11 H-U 465 (1846-7) [25:48]
Fanny Mendelssohn Quartet
Stefan Mickisch (piano)
rec. 1994, Bauer Studios, Ludwigsburg, German

Fanny Mendelssohn was the older sister of the composer Felix Mendelssohn – there were also two younger siblings. She and her brother Felix had a similar musical education until the point when her father stopped her composition lessons saying she should prepare for being a housewife. She nevertheless continued to compose prolifically but chiefly piano music and songs as this was what was considered appropriate for women to write. She was also an excellent pianist. She married the artist William Hensel in 1829 (and is therefore sometimes referred to by his name as well as her own). Both her brother and her husband supported her composing and she and Felix used to send each other their works and comment on them. Her brother also published some of her songs as part of his own collections; their actual composer only emerged later Most of her works were only published after her death and so are listed by H-U number, from Renate Hellwig-Unruh, who catalogued them.

Fanny did not have confidence in larger forms and the three works on this disc are, I believe, her only works of chamber music. The Piano Quartet is the least known, written when she was seventeen and with the help of her composition teacher, while she still had one. Incidentally her brother wrote his first Piano Quartet in the same year, when he was thirteen, but I do not know which came first. Anyway, it is a delightful work, with a very florid piano part which is reminiscent of Weber. It is officially in three movements but in fact in four as the final movement moves from being a Minuet to a Presto.

The String Quartet is a more serious work and shows the influence of Beethoven. Fanny’s lack of confidence in larger forms was here reinforced by her brother who wrote to her rather critically about its deficiencies in form. However, at this distance in time there is no need to be apologetic about it. It is a fierce work, though the short Romanze is much more in the vein of early German romanticism. It is probable that her brother’s disapproval of the work meant that she did not attempt another quartet.

The Piano Trio was written in her last year before her early death from a stroke. It may have been suggested by the example of Clara Schumann’s Piano Trio, written the year before, and the two composers were friends. It is another work full of energy and passion, and with a rather wider emotional range than much of her brother’s music. Again the piano part is virtuosic.

The performances here are full of verve and dash. The moving spirit seems to be the violinst Renate Eggebrecht, who leads the Fanny Mandelssohn quartet as well as writing the sleeve note here. Members of her quartet join with Stefan Mickisch for the two works involving the piano. The disc is part of a Fanny Mendelssohn edition, which includes two discs of her songs and another one with an alternative version of the Piano Quartet, though this seems to be no longer available. The one under review currently seems the only available version of that work, which is well worth having. The recording is rather close, and the violin can sound a bit scrawny, but the hi-fi controls can subdue this. It dates from 1994, and the String Quartet is a première recording, but the disc was remastered in 2005, and after some time only available as a download is now reissued on CD again, which is how I have reviewed it.

There are alternative versions of the other works, often in company with works by Felix Mendelssohn, which you may well have already. I recently reviewed an excellent new recording by the Nash Ensemble which coupled Fanny’s String Quartet and Piano Trio with the Piano Trio by Clara Schumann, an excellent work and a suitable companion. However, if you would prefer to have Fanny’s Piano Quartet, which is well worth having, then this might suit you better. Either way, do listen to Fanny’s music: she was a highly talented composer who might have gone on to greater things had she had the opportunity and a longer life.

Stephen Barber

Renate Eggebrecht and Sylvie Bachhuber (violins), David Cann (viola), Friedemann Kupsa (cello), Stefan Mikisch (piano)

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