Fanny MENDELSSOHN HENSEL (1805-1847)
A Woman’s Hand: Selected piano works
Helen Cawthorne (piano)
rec. 7-8 February 2021, Holy Trinity Church, Hereford, UK
PRIMA FACIE PFCD172 [61:20]
The basic facts are straightforward. Fanny Cäcilie Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Felix’s elder sister, was born in Hamburg on 14 November 1805. She was given a musical formation similar to her brother’s. She is usually defined as a pianist and amateur composer. Highly regarded by Felix, she was his constant source of support and valued critical advisor. Her career was stunted by various social factors, among them lack of support from her father. In 1829, she married the artist Wilhelm Hensel who encouraged her aspirations in every way.
More than 500 compositions in her catalogue include songs, chamber music, cantatas, an overture and oratorios. Of interest to the pianist is the corpus of some 120 piano pieces. Little of her opus was published during her lifetime; some was even circulated in Felix’s name. Her music was rediscovered in the 1980s and beyond, and her reputation has increased since. It is not deprecating to suggest that her musical aesthetic is often like her brother’s. It may have something to do with the fact that she studied with the same piano and composition teachers, Ludwig Berger and Carl Friedrich Zelter, respectively. Fanny Hensel died on 14 May 1847. Sadly, her distraught brother passed away some six months later.
The liner notes explain that of the seventeen works presented here, only four were published in the composer’s lifetime. The earliest is the Andante in G major (1836) . She later selected it for inclusion in Vier Lieder für das Pianoforte Op. 2, so it is her first published piano piece. The other tracks present published and unpublished works from the Mendelssohn archives.
The booklet explains that Fanny Hensel’s piano music “displays increasingly […] signs of stylistic independence, particularly in exploring rich harmonic colourings, unconventional key relationships and chromaticism, and […] a tendency to push the boundaries of the standard ABA form”. It is therefore wrong to consider her as “sub-Felix”. It may be more appropriate to suggest that she was developing beyond her brother’s achievement. I do not know enough of her music to substantiate that suggestion. Yet, she seems happiest writing relatively small piano pieces such as the Songs without Words which she may well have been the first composer to develop, only to be overwhelmed by Felix’s major contribution in the genre.
I found everything on this disc well played, both from a technical and interpretive perspective. It is a voyage of delight from end to end. The superb recording compliments the playing in every way. I cannot compare Helen Cawthorne to other interpreters, because Hensel’s music is off my beaten track, but everything tells me that this is an immensely satisfying performance. The pianist wrote a long and detailed biographical appreciation of the composer. (The font size a wee bit small, but the text is easily available on the Prima Facie
web page.) I would have liked a little more information on the music, not necessarily analytical, but contextual and descriptive. Some information about the soloist would have been of interest, but Cawthorne has an excellent
web page which says that she “enjoys an interesting and varied UK-based career as a pianist, accompanist, chamber musician and coach”. The booklet cover is an interesting abstraction by an unacknowledged artist.
I understand that Prima Facie intends to record all of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel’s piano music. If so, if might have been better to put in the album all of Op. 5 or Op. 8 rather than selections. That would help avoid later collating these opuses from several discs. It is also advisable to apply the official H-U numbering from Renate Hellwig-Unruh’s catalogue of works by Fanny Hensel.
I wondered about the seemingly patronising title. A Woman’s Hand was, apparently, a back-handed compliment from a “contemporary critic who opined that her compositions did not betray a woman’s hand but displayed, rather, a masculine seriousness”. The bottom line is that Fanny Mendelssohn’s piano music is in every way just as impressive, subtle, technically demanding and satisfying as that of her brother Felix.
I look forward to Helen Cawthorne recording more of Fanny Hensel’s music, including the three Piano Sonatas and Das Jahr, a cycle of twelve character pieces for piano “evoking each of the twelve months of the year that she spent in Italy”.
Allegro molto, C minor (1846) [2:36]
Without tempo indication, G minor (1844) [3:40]
Allegro molto, E minor (1844) [3:19]
Allegretto grazioso, B flat major (1836) [3:35]
Andante, G major, Op. 2 No. 1 (1836) [3:48]
Prestissimo, C major (1836) [4:28]
Adagio, Eb major (1843) (No. 10 from 12 Klavierstücke für Felix) [3:42]
Vier Lieder ohne Worte Op. 8 No. 1-4:
Allegro moderato, B minor (1846) [4:51]
Andante con espressione, A minor (1846) [3:01]
Lied. Larghetto, D flat major (1846) [2:35]
Wanderlied. Presto, E major (1846) [2:32]
Six Mélodies pour le piano Op. 5 No. 4-6:
Lento appassionato, B major (1846) [2:28]
Allegro molto vivace, G major (1840) [2:57]
Andante soave, E flat major (1840) [5:04]
Allegretto ma non troppo, E minor (1843) [3:08]
Allegro moderato, B major (1837) [5:03]
Andante con moto, E major (1838) [4:29]