Mendelssohn, Felix: Piano Trio in C minor, Op. 66

It is difficult to pin down exactly what makes Mendelssohn so wonderful to play.  He has an uncanny sense not only of harmony and compositional construction, but also of what makes the instruments themselves sound rich, full, and  oddly unleashed by gravity.  This is especially true for purely quick or lyric pieces, of which the Piano Trio in C minor has two fabulous examples in its inner movements: in the Scherzo, a fleeting, fantastic virtuosity (as in his Midsummer Night’s Dream or the Octet); and in the Andante, a floating song without words (as in his Violin Concerto or Songs Without Words).  Mendelssohn’s sense of how to make the instruments create these atmospheres, and live in them, is as fine as any composer might wish to possess.

Mendelssohn’s C Minor trio is not so much played as his first trio, in D Major.  This is perhaps due to a seriousness-of-purpose in the later trio’s outer movements — Mendelssohn’s skill for the fantastic is so large that it can make his sense of the serious seem a bit pale in comparison.  In particular, the inclusion of a religious chorale in the last movement (far from an unusual practice, and a medium-regular feature in works of Schumann), can seem equal parts glorious and forced.  And the strict formality of the first movement can sometimes seem to restrain Mendelssohn’s lighter possibilities… But how great they do sound.  They are fabulously written, and the psychology of the relationship between the serious-religious and light-fantastic in Mendelssohn is a source for endless speculation and discussion.  A discussion which can be had in the context of some of the most ingenious music ever put to paper.

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