Mendelssohn: Trio No. 1 in D minor for Violin, Cello, and Piano, Opus 49

“This is the master-trio of our time, even as Beethoven’s in B-flat and D and Schubert’s in E-flat were the masterpieces of their day; it is an exceedingly fine composition that, years hence, will still delight our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.” So wrote Robert Schumann when he first encountered the D minor Piano Trio by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-47) a few months after it was premiered in 1840. Schumann continued: “It need hardly be said that the Trio is not a piece just for the pianist; the other players also have to play their roles in lively fashion and can count on gaining satisfaction and appreciation. So may the new work be effective from all perspectives, as it should, and may it serve us as evidence of its creator’s artistic power, which now appears to be near its full bloom.”

Mendelssohn’s D minor Piano Trio is as great a masterpiece as Schumann proclaimed it to be. It offers abundant, arching melodies of Italianate, bel canto inspiration, proclaimed with luxuriant sonorities, often introduced in the tenorial tones of the cello. The minor mode provides a sense of depth that can be useful reigning in Mendelssohn’s native exuberance; but here, as is normally his wont, the composer hardly feels constrained to abjure long stretches in the major (though, in the first movement, he curiously avoids the expected relative major of F). As one might expect, the piano part is brilliant, though it does not dominate the strings as much as the keyboard part had in Mendelssohn’s early chamber pieces. After the premiere, Mendelssohn revised the piano part somewhat, incorporating certain new keyboard tricks associated with Chopin and Liszt.

If the first movement stands as an amalgam of Romantic piano style and Classical structure, the second is purely of its time: a leisurely Romantic “song without words” (a Mendelssohn specialty), a heartfelt, intimate, uncomplicated piece that achieves heightened emotion in its middle. In the ensuing, slightly syncopated Scherzo we glimpse what was said to be Mendelssohn’s strength as a pianist: brilliant finger staccato and lightning-fast wrist action. With the Schubert-inspired Finale we again return to the ostensible deep thoughts of the minor mode, though even here the strings sing out a warm-hearted cantabile melody in B-flat major halfway through. That tune returns in a coda at the end, with the unusual marking f e dolce (“Loudly and sweetly”), transposed to D major, thus bringing the trio to a brilliant major-mode conclusion.—James M. Keller

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic and is the author of Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press). An earlier version of the Mendelssohn note appeared in the programs of the New York Philharmonic and is used with permission. Copyright ©New York Philharmonic.

(May 2019)