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A Sigh of Relief

David M. Greene

"Those who have been yearning for a recording of the complete piano sonatas of Felix Mendelssohn, unencumbered by other material, will breathe a sigh of relief."

The MHS Review 236 Vol. 3, No. 2 March 5, 1979


The Three Sonatas for Piano
Christian Ivaldi, Piano

David draws a sigh of relief as someone has finally released a recording of Mendelssohn's piano sonatas without any of that other piano clutter. He also researches and reports back on Mendelssohn's swimming abilities and Goethe's kissing style.

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Those who have been yearning for a recording of the complete piano sonatas of Felix Mendelssohn, unencumbered by other material, will breathe a sigh of relief. To be sure, there has been a reading of them for some time in Rena Kyriakou's "Complete Piano Music of Mendelssohn" for Vox. There is a recording of No. 1 by Karl Ulrich Schnabel (Artur's son) and the one of No. 3 , by Ilse von Alpenheim (Mrs. Antal Dorati), but that about exhausts the recorded history of these pieces, at least on records readily available in the United States. (WERM lists absolutely nothing up through 1955.) If, however, you weren't waiting for the Mendelssohn sonatas--or never even heard of them--don't expect Beethoven. Or Schubert. Or even Chopin. For the sonatas are not among Mendelssohn's ripest works, despite the high opus number of two of them. Indeed, he was only six months past his twelfth birthday when he turned out the earliest of them (No. 2), and he wasn't even that far past his eighteenth when he drew the last bar-line of the last one (No. 3). This is not to say that they are not pleasant--even delightful--pieces, and, as the work of a kid, they show amazing ability and self-confi­dence. (If I had a pre-pubescent son who strolled in and dashed off something of the sort for the vicar, I'm not certain whether I'd fall on my knees in gratitude, or toss him out on his ear for being a smart-aleck.)

Felix started taking his compositions seriously in 1820, when he was eleven, carefully squirreling away fair copies in the family archive, though there is no reason to think he would have been delighted with the present-day proliferation of recordings of the twelve symphonies he wrote for home consumption, for example. He seems to have been rather proud of his maiden flight into sonataland. The fall after he wrote Op. 105, his teacher, dear old Herr Zelter, took him to Weimar to meet the septuagenerian Goethe (whose favorite composer Zelter was). The aged poet and the little boy hit it off just fine. Felix delighted in the great man's collections of fossils, minerals, and objets d'art--and in basking in the reflected glory--and the great man delighted in hearing him play. Felix notes that Goethe was particuiarly pleased with the G minor sonata. (We should recall, however, that Goethe was no admirer of the musical progressives.) Goethe seems to have kissed him a lot, but it was a kissing age, and Goethe was especially adept at it. Felix reports in the same letter a good deal of hugging and kissing going on between the old gentleman and young Fraulein Ulrike, his daughter-in-law's sister. (Goethe, by the way, recalled at this time hearing the boy Mozart when he himself was just Felix's age.)

Mendelssohn's piano sonatas are not a staple of the piano repertoire, so often they can surprise, and they are certainly not "over-exposed". There's another essay in Issue 236 that's a deeper dive into the solo piano works of Mendelssohn, so if you've developed an appetite, read "A Neat, Precise Genius", and see additional listening recommendations.

HOW TO HEAR THIS RECORDING: Christian Ivaldi's performance reviewed here has been issued on the Arion label, and can be heard by clicking on your preferred streaming service below.

SONATAS, JUST THE SONATAS: Other works of Mendelssohn for solo piano are discussed and can be heard by reading "A Neat, Precise Genius" on this site. Howard Shelley's uniformly excellent performances on Hyperion are worth a listen, and are just now starting to appear on streaming services.

Frederic Chiu's performances also receive good notices, and can be streamed or downloaded - or even purchased on CD.

And there's a complete set of all the piano works on Decca, featuring Roberto Prosseda.

In 1825, Mendelssohn's father took his sixteen-year-old to Paris to get the opinion of Cherubini, the now-doddering director of the Conservatory, but still regarded as an oracle on things musical. Cherubini reported that Felix was rich and should go far. No doubt he was speaking of his talent, though he unwittingly described his economic situation accurately. By November the lad had completed his first miracle, the string octet, which Zelter told Goethe, "really makes sense;'' he also told Goethe that Felix was'' a good swimmer, even upstream," and he was not being metaphorical. The next summer Felix turned out his incredible Midsummer Night's Dream Overture, though the form in which we know it owes something to his friend and teacher Adolf Bernhard (called Abbe, from his initials) Marx, who thought the original version stunk. Or stank. In between the two masterpieces, came the Op. 6 sonata, which here and there betrays its relationship to them.

1827, the year of the third sonata (Op. 106--the same number as that of the Beethoven sonata Felix was featuring in his concerts around this time), was marked chiefly by a first venture into opera. The work was Die Hochziet des Camacho (Gamacho's Wedding), a comedy, drawn from Don Quixote, said to be a nice little work, but of no special distinction, it was presented to Gasparo Spontini, Berlin's musical czar, who turned it down. Then the Mendelssohns brought their wealth and influence to bear, and the work was performed. Spontini turned out to have been right: it failed to hold a decidedly partisan audience. The sonata is probably better.

Christian lvaldi, who appears to be particularly in tune with the Romantics, turns up frequently on records these days, but none that I've seen provide any particulars. Can anyone out there enlighten me?




The Three Sonatas for Piano

Sonata in E Major, Op. 6; Sonata in B-flat Major, Op. 106; Sonata in G Minor, Op. 105.

Christian Ivaldi, Piano

Mendelssohn. as everybody knows, was a genius. The three sonatas on this record (his only piano sonatas, by the way), were all written before he was twenty--the Sonata Opus 105, in fact, was composed when he was only 12. The other two were written by the mature composer when he was all of 16 (the Sonata Opus 106), and 17 (Sonata Opus 6). Juvenilia, you think? Not at all, instead we have gorgeous music by a young master (in both senses of the word) Mendelssohn, in his most mature pianistic style.

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