Cello Sonata No. 2 Op. 58
Mendelssohn’s second sonata for cello and piano reveals him as the Classical-Romantic hybrid that he was. An effortless practitioner of Classical etiquette in the construction of symmetrically balanced phrases, he eagerly took part in the Romantic age’s fascination with tonal colour and virtuoso keyboard writing.
This sonata was written in 1843 for Mendelssohn’s brother Paul, a cellist, and displays the four canonical movement types of Classical tradition: a sonata-form first movement allegro, a scherzo second movement, a lyrical slow movement and a sparkling finale overflowing with merriment and good spirits.
The first movement Allegro assai vivace opens with a upward-driving melody in the cello over a panting accompaniment of pulsing harmonies in the piano, a textural configuration that recalls the opening of the composer’s Italian Symphony. Immediately noticeable is how equal he makes the two instruments in the presentation of thematic material. Indeed, the piano is so empowered that its fondness for swirling textures arpeggios often threatens to upstage the lyrical outpourings of the cello. The minor mode in this sunny movement only really makes itself heard in the development section, and even there it is more of a tone colour than a seriously dramatic furrowing of the musical brow.
The pacing of the Allegretto scherzando second movement is a tad leisurely for a real, rollicking scherzo in the Beethoven mould. This movement is more in the way of an intermezzo, with a scherzo-like mischievounesss perceivable merely in the merry twinkling of its run-up grace-note ornaments. The tart opening section gives way to a contrasting middle sectionswith a melt-in-your-mouth melody given entirely to the cello, a melody eminently suitable for humming in the shower if ever there was one.
Utterly unforgettable in this sonata is the Adagio slow movement, that opens with luxuriant rolling arpeggios in the piano outlining a chorale-like melody such as Bach would have composed. And the association is not fortuitous. Mendelssohn was a devoted promoter of the Bach’s music and scholars have noticed unusual similarities between this slow movement and the aria “Es ist vollbracht” from the St. John Passion, as well as the closing sequence of the Fantasia from Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D minor. The cello’s operatic outpouring of emotion contrasts strikingly with the equanimity of the piano’s chorale-inspired piety and this creates the real drama in the movement as the cello gradually comes round to see things from the piano’s point of view.
The Molto allegro e vivace finale is somewhere between effervescently cheerful and manically hectic, like the finale of the composer’s G minor Piano Concerto, which it resembles. Singularly noticeable from the opening exchanges is the degree of cooperation between the two instruments that regularly complete each other’s thoughts. This is music for that part of the road movie in which the two buddies have got the cash and are making a joyous getaway
3 Romances Op. 94
This gentle trio of romances was composed in 1849 at the end of Schumann’s composing life, just before his mental health problems overwhelmed him to the point that he needed to be committed to an institution. They were originally published as pieces for oboe but have been adopted by violinists, as well as wind players, to enrich their respective repertoires. The affectionate tone of these pieces is in keeping with what appears to have been their initial purpose: they were composed in December and Schumann is said to have given them to his wife Clara as a Christmas present.
Here we have real red-meat Romanticism in the German mould, with a depth of piano sonority in the low register that at times suggests Brahms. Their melodic range is kept well within that of the singing voice and there is little to suggest instrumental writing in the succession of eminently singable 8ths and quarter notes that make up the melodic line.
Each romance is written in song form with an A-B-A structure, the contrasting B section being the quicker and more animated section in the first two romances, while the third has a slower, more lyrical middle section.
Sonata for Cello and Piano Op. 19
Rachmaninoff’s music for piano is renowned for its lushness of scoring, and the keyboard writing in this chamber work for cello and piano is every bit as opulent, its technical demands as challenging, its effects as spectacular, as anything in his concertos or major works for piano solo. Despite having an additional instrument to write for, Rachmaninoff yielded nothing by way of concession to this sonorous exponent of the baritone range when writing the piano part of his Sonata for Cello and Piano Op. 19. Its piano textures still feature a rich panoply of countermelodies in the mid-range riding sidecar to sumptuous melodies ringing out in the right hand above, regardless of whatever throbbing lyricism might also emerge from the cello. One could almost believe, as has often been said, that the work is really just a big piano sonata with cello accompaniment.
Written in 1901, around the same time as his famous Piano Concerto No. 2, this sonata is impressive in its expressive range and orchestral heft of sonority. As Steven Isserlis has pointed out, many of its themes bear the stylistic imprint of Orthodox hymns, especially in their use of close intervals, their obsessive repetition of single notes, and their bell-like sonorities.
The first movement begins with a slow introduction that slips in much of the thematic material that will be pursued in the following Allegro moderato. Of special note is the rising semitone, intoned in the cello’s mid-range, that opens the work. This oft-repeated motive pervades the themes of the exposition and drives the momentum of the stormy development section, which is end-weighted, merging into the recapitulation at its climactic point of highest tension, as in the first movement of the Second Concerto. The movement closes with the rap-on-the-door rhythmic gesture that would become this composer’s signature sign-off: RACH-man-in-OFF!
The second movement Allegro scherzando is remarkable for its emotional volatility. It begins with a worrying urgency reminiscent of Schubert’s Erlkönig but lyrical impulses soon begin to mix in with all the fretting and the middle section is a swaying duet of no small sentimental charm. Nonetheless, Rachmaninoff does not hesitate from time to time to reveal the iron fist within the velvet glove in outbursts of distinctly muscular pianism, like a lion showing his teeth.
The Andante third movement is the jewel of this sonata, its quivering harmonic ambivalence between major and minor a bittersweet and vaguely exotic sonic wrapping for the bell-like repeated notes of its opening phrase. Dark and brooding, the long phrases of this elegiac movement build up to an impassioned climax before ebbing into a consoling calm of warm contentment.
The Allegro mosso finale in G major is a sonata-form movement of abundant contrasts, featuring a doggedly upbeat opening theme and a wistful anthem of a second theme, yielding at times to the type of fervent military march that often emerges in Rachmaninoff’s finales. Just before the end, the pace slows to a crawl in a coda that seems to want to pass in review the movement’s best lyrical moments past. Will this be the end? No, of course not. Our dreaming duo awake from their reverie and scamper off to the work’s brilliant conclusion like a pack of squealing school children let loose to find Easter eggs.
Donald G. Gíslason 2017