Classical Voice of North Carolina

September 7, 2012

The Claremont Piano Trio Cast New Light on BOTH Mendelssohns' Creativity

This concert by the Claremont Trio in the beloved Ernest Nelson Music Room in the East Duke Building on Duke University's East Campus concluded an entire day of musicological exploration. A mini-symposium in the afternoon focused on the discovery that the Easter Sonata for piano, previously attributed to Felix Mendelssohn, was actually composed by his sister Fanny Hensel.

The Piano Trio in D minor, Op. 11 by Fanny M. Hensel (1805-1847) opened the Claremont Trio's concert. It was her last composition and served as a birthday present for her sister, Rebecka. The Mendelssohn Family published it in 1850. It is a vigorous work filled with fine, skillfully crafted themes and Romantic ardor. Virtuosic scoring for the keyboard is present in all four movements. The large scale first movement is in classic sonata form and marked "Allegro molto vivace." All of its themes share harmonic, or rhythmic patterns. The shaping of the cello's bass line is especially well done. The slow movement

begins gently but builds in momentum. Fanny imaginatively ties the faster portion to the movement's beginning. She marks the third movement "Lied: Allegretto." The opening of the finale is striking. It "begins with an improvisatory rhapsodic fantasia-like piano solo marked ad libitum. When the strings enter, the tempo accelerates, but it soon reverts to the opening tempo." The tempos alternate for the rest of the movement as the music builds to a powerful climax.

The Claremont Trio, pianist Andrea Lam, violinist Emily Bruskin, and her twin sister cellist Julia Bruskin gave a beautifully judged, passionate performance. Lam balanced perfectly with the strings and was most engaging in the rhapsodic opening to the last movement. Julia's cello produced some very rich low sonorities. All three played with very clear articulation.

Hensel's newly reattributed Ostersonate (Easter Sonata) (1828) was preceded by Angela Mace giving brief comments from the stage. "The Easter Sonata was begun around Easter 1828, in Berlin." While it is not programmatic, the music shows influences from the revival of J. S. Bach's St. Matthew Passion which Felix had rescued from languishing manuscripts. According to Mace, Beethoven was a major compositional model for Fanny and this is readily heard in the first movement. Bach's influence shows in the second movement's form as a prelude and fugue in E. Mace describes the third movement as "a darkly tinged Scherzo - quintessentially 'Mendelssohnian." Passion influences are reflected in "the earthquake music…rumbling tremolos in the bass" during the stormy fourth movement which ends with a fantasy on the Easter chorale, "Christe, du Lamm Gottes" (Christ, thou Lamb of God).

Pianist Lam gave a confident, riveting performance of the work with superbly judged dynamics, phrasing, and choice of tonal palette. There was nothing "demure" or feminine about the sound of the assertive first movement. The score was powerful without sounding derivative of its model. The musical lines of the second movement were spun out in a seamless elegance. Lam's playing of the lively scherzo kept it from sounding like a mere copy of the type of Fairy music Fanny's brother seemed to conjure effortlessly. Lam brought out Fanny's originality. Despite its boisterous designation, the cumulative effect of Lam's playing of the finale was seraphic. A friend said it was like a benediction.

Much like the case of Schubert's two piano trios, Piano Trio No. 2 in C minor, Op. 66 (1845) by Felix Mendelssohn is less often encountered in performance than its less mature companion. This mature late work is more serious than its predecessor. The Claremont Trio pulled out all the stops for the first movement delivering one of the most intense I have ever heard. The string players especially threw themselves very physically into the interpretation. It was a change from the more restrained, classical approach I have most often heard in performance. The playing of the other three movements were more in line with tradition. The second movement was polished and beautifully balanced while the lighter-than-air scherzo really took wing. This was Felix at his most irresistible. The energy of the first movement was harnessed to forge an overwhelming climax. Brava!

—William Thomas Walker