Monday 19 October 2020

Mendelssohn Cello Sonatas and more, in historically informed performances from cellist Viola de Hoog and pianist Mikayel Balyan

Mendelssohn Cello Sonatas, Piano Trio No. 1; Viola de Hoog, Mikayel Balyan, Marten Root; Vivat

Mendelssohn Cello Sonatas, Piano Trio No. 1; Viola de Hoog, Mikayel Balyan, Marten Root; Vivat

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 16 October 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Uncompromising colours and a wonderful directness characterise these period performances of Mendelssohn's chamber music

For much of the second half of the 19th century, Mendelssohn's Cello Sonatas were the epitome of the cello sonata, though with the dimming of the composer's reputation their presence on the concert stage diminished until the revival of the composer's reputation in the late 20th century. On this disc, from Vivat, we get the chance to hear Mendelssohn's Cello Sonatas performed by two fine period instrument specialists, Viola de Hoog (cello) and Mikayel Balyan (piano), and the filling is equally intriguing Mendelssohn's Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 49 in the composer's version for flute, cello and piano.

Viola de Hoog plays a Guadagni cello from 1750, and her tone combines a rich dark expressive quality, with a certain directness. There is a forthrightness to the sound quality here, which is complemented by the piano's striking tones (Balyan plays an 1845 Erard). This historically informed playing which seeks to elucidate the sound-world of the period rather than trying to ingratiate the music with the listeners. There is something forthright about the style of the disc, with De Hoog's highly speaking tones finding a rather different character in Mendelssohn's sonatas than many playing in a 21st century manner.

Mendelssohn's younger brother Paul was a cellist, whilst Mendelssohn himself was a violinist and violist (as well as being a gifted pianist). So it is not surprising that in 1839, Mendelssohn wrote his brother a cello sonata. It is in three movements, and eschews the drama of Beethoven's cello sonatas (the last of which was written in 1815). The unassuming introduction, leads to a first movement where Viola de Hoog's plangent tone is complemented by the colours Balyan brings out of the Erard piano (a make of piano which Mendelssohn owned and approved of). The elegant Andante makes a finely contrasting movement, an Allegro assai finale which brings an element of drama to the elegance. This is a performance which takes the sonata serious, and there is no hint of the suggestion of it being 'lighter' than the second sonata.

Whilst Mendelssohn's first sonata was written for his brother, the rather larger scale second sonata was in fact also written for a non-professional as the sonata was dedicated to the cello playing Russian Count Mateusz (whose instrument was the Stradivarius later played by Jacqueline Du Pre and Yo Yo Ma). But in the sonata, Mendelssohn certainly does not take any prisoner. De Hoog and Balyan plunge straight in to the opening Allegro assai vivace, with an impetuosity which creates a sense of unstoppable music, each player seemingly egging each other on. The directness of De Hoog's tone here adds drama, because we are lacking the romantic sweetening of rich vibrato and ingratiating modern strings. This continues into the Allegretto scherzando which is full of character but perhaps a tad more serious and less aetherial than some performances, and there are moments of vivid drama. The third movement is full if intense, rhapsodic drama. The finale, Molto allegro e vivace, engagingly characterful and impulsive with the piano's distinctive colours really coming into their own here.

Mendelssohn's Piano Trio No. 1 dates from 1840 and was intended from the first for violin, piano and cello, but his English publisher was interested in a flute version. Mendelssohn was not entirely sure, but allowed the publisher to produce one. It is a work which Mendelssohn seems to have had to, or been happy to tinker with. After playing it through to his friend, the composer Ferdinand Hiller, Mendelssohn completely re-wrote the piano part in a more modern, Schumanesque style, in response to Hiller's comments about it being old-fashioned. The use period instruments immediately solves the problem of balance within the work, there is little chance of the florid piano part overwhelming the others. Flautist Marten Root's tone carries well, but there are moments in the fast-moving passionate first movement that I missed the violin's greater incisiveness. The slow movement comes over very much as a Mendelssohn song without words, and in fact the piano gets a substantial (and beautifully fluid) solo before the others come in. Here, the flute's limpid tones really suit the music admirably. The lightness of the scherzo certainly puts a smile on your face, and the flute brings associations with other of Mendelssohn's fairy movements and the players bring an equal sense of lightness to the finale.

These three performances certainly do illuminate the sort of sound-world that Mendelssohn might have expected. The players respond to his music with lightness and passion, character and charm, allied to a certain directness of tone and a sense of the vivid colours that these instruments can bring.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) - Cello Sonata in D major, Op.58
Felix Mendelssohn -  Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op.49
Felix Mendelssohn - Cello Sonata in B flat major, Op.45
Viola da Hoog (cello)
Marten Root (flute)
Mikayel Balyan (piano)
Recorded at Oude Dorpskerk, Bunnik, Netherlands, 18-21 November 2019
VIVAT 120 1CD [76.54]

Available from Amazon, from Hive.

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