Notes and Editorial Reviews
MENDELSSOHN Piano Sonata in g, op. 105. Prelude and Fugue in e. Fanny MENDELSSOHN Piano Sonata in g. Prelude and Fugue in e. Largo. Allegro di molto. Prelude and Toccata • Joanne Polk (pn) • BRIDGE 9367 (60:05)
Here we have a truly astonishing juxtaposition of works in the same form and key by a major 19th-century composer and his oft-neglected sister. What I find most interesting here is not, as Jeffrey Langford points out in his superb liner notes, the structural or temperamental similarities of the two siblings’ works, but the mere fact that these specific pieces by Fanny Mendelssohn are much better than the one or two pieces I can recall hearing of her in the past. Or, just maybe, it is because Joanne Polk is a really
terrific pianist (she is), and is therefore able to bring more out of the music.
Of course, in the first instance—juxtaposing piano sonatas in G Minor by both composers—the advantage is all Fanny’s. Felix’s sonata was written when he was only 12, while Fanny’s was written near the end of her brief life. We all know that young Felix was a child prodigy nearly on the level of Mozart, and we also know that the older musical forms of Haydn and Mozart were his models, not the contemporary music of Beethoven, but although the sonata is quite good (and certainly deserves a bit more exposure than it gets), it is far from the emotionally charged, musically more advanced sonata of his adult sister. Fanny also was the first to compose “songs without words,” which became one of her brother’s trademarks. Moreover, one can hear in Fanny’s sonata so much of the mature Felix that it’s almost scary; but this is something Felix himself noticed in 1837, writing to his sister about one of her preludes in B and a fugue of his in the same key: “It is not only the same figuration, motion and design which astonished me, but especially certain details … in the mood [of these works].”
And there is more. Langford points out that it was Fanny’s unexpected death at age 42 (1847) that pushed her younger brother over the edge. He was so distraught by her death that he went into a deep depression, had a nervous breakdown, and then a series of strokes just a few months later that ended his own life at age 38. Apparently, Fanny and Felix were emotionally connected in a way that only twins usually are. The family (read: parents) never really expected Fanny to be a good composer, and certainly not to perform in public, but to her brother she was his musical equal. Make no mistake about that.
In addition to the emotional range of Fanny’s sonata, there is the fact that all four movements are played continuously, thus preceding the design used by Liszt in his own famous B-Minor Sonata many moons later. Moreover, the switch from Scherzo (II) to Adagio (III) is so subtle that you never hear it happening, except that the Adagio is tremendously emotional and rivets your attention. The final Presto, though in G Major, is still strongly emotional in character, complementing the mood of the preceding movements. The writing for the piano here is almost orchestral in concept—again, like Liszt. There’s no two ways about it: This is a major piano work of the early 19th century that deserves to be played much more often.
Felix’s prelude is tuneful and lyrical, very much like a Chopin etude or one of his own songs without words, while his fugue borrows as much from Beethoven in its use of chromatics as it does from Bach in its structure. Fanny’s prelude and fugue, though written at almost the exact same time as her brother’s (1827), is rather more Baroque in design, though her prelude—like Felix’s—is a free meditation on a single theme. As Langford points out in the notes, Fanny’s fugue “employs all the usual Baroque contrapuntal techniques of stretto, inversion, episodes, and more—all in direct homage to the great Baroque master.” Yet, he also notes, both Felix’s and Fanny’s preludes and fugues have the exact same rhythmic pattern: long-long, short-short, long.
From this point on, the recorded recital leaves Felix behind and concentrates on Fanny’s music, all of it only recently published, so these are premiere recordings. The Largo is a nice piece, tranquil and relaxed, while the Allegro di molto and Prelude and Toccata are, again, very much in the style of Bach. One might, perhaps, be disappointed that more really original music by Fanny does not close out this disc, but it’s a great tribute to her meticulous musical mind that she was able to write as much in the style of Bach as if she had been Anna Magdalena.
There is no escaping it: This CD forces us to re-evaluate Fanny Mendelssohn and give her respect for both her absorption of compositional techniques and her own personal powers of invention (in the sonata). If you’ve never thought very much of Fanny Mendelssohn before, this is the disc that will change your mind, and Polk’s rich, full tone and impassioned style are part of the journey. What a wonderful disc!
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
Works on This Recording
Allegro di molto by Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel
Joanne Polk (Piano)
Prelude and Fugue by Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel
Joanne Polk (Piano)
Prelude and Toccata by Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel
Joanne Polk (Piano)
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