We wished to construe an almost archeological sort of journey, searching for the most authentic and likely sound. Indeed, for the sound conceived by the author himself when the piece was created, with the aim to get close to the aural suggestions that the listeners of the period might have heard. Thus arose the intention, almost a necessity for us, to enter the authentic inner expressivity that a fortepiano and a violin with gut strings and original classical set-up could yield to 19th century listeners, employing historically informed practice. We therefore performed on period instruments: two different fortepianos (a Haselmann of 1800/1810 and a Graf of 1830), an Anonymous violin of 1712 with historical set-up (three strings in bare gut and only one, the fourth, in wound gut) and an original bow made by Bazin in the 19th century, restored to its original set-up. Despite the deep beauty of these three Sonatas, only the second was printed during the composer’s lifetime, i.e. the Sonata in F minor, published in 1825 as Opera IV, while the others remained totally unknown to the public until World War II, when the manuscript was found and printed.
Sonata in F major, 1820.
Allegro – Andante – Presto.
It was written during the composer’s adolescence, probably between the summer and the autumn of 1820. The autograph part is almost devoid of indications: articulations, bowing, phrasing and signs related to dynamics are entrusted to the good taste and philological preparation of today’s performers, who are allowed to perform ornaments and small improvisations extemporaneously. Here Mendelssohn’s style is indeed quite different from that of the other two sonatas, and seems to suggest a more conservative approach. The choice to use a Haselmann fortepiano of 1804 ca., organologically closer to the instruments of Beethoven’s first and second period, is due to our will to highlight a language which owes more to the sonatas of the end of the eighteenth century, than to those coeval to his composition. Starting from 1816, the Mendelssohn family was residing in Paris. It was there that Fanny and Felix took lessons, among others, from Perre Baillot, author of the famous treatise Art du Violon (1834). The study of this milestone of violin teaching was fundamental for our philological research aiming at the realization of this recording project. In this treatise, in fact, there are detailed descriptions with musical examples related to the use, for example, of the vibrato, of the bow vibrato on open strings, of the glissato, of different types of bow strokes, of the use of messa di voce, as well as indications on diminutions on cadences (with an actual handbook of cadence formulas from which we drew). There are also indications on how to hold the bow or the instrument, on how to choose the most suitable fingering for the musical expression, in order to enhance the timbral characteristics of the violin’s four strings , on which portion of the bow to use for a specific nuance, on how to manage the musical phrase, on the use of dynamics and, last but not least, on the need to consider the human voice as an absolute model of lyricism while aiming at a beautiful tone. The first movement, like the third, has a bipartite and monothematic form, with a very sparkling and playful character, almost as if the two instruments were chasing each other. The work’s opening is simple and linear and is presented by the violin through a descending arpeggio. This thematic cell playfully pervades the entire movement. The second half, on the other hand, is a theme with very refined variations, in ternary time and in the minor mode. The third movement, a thrilling Presto, is a lively perpetual motion, with sudden surprising stops. It is a very refreshing sonata, written by a youthful hand that imparts to this music a delicate purity.
Sonata in F minor opera IV, 1823
Adagio. Allegro Moderato – Poco Adagio – Allegro Agitato
Three years after the first carefree Sonata, we find an already more mature Mendelssohn who relies on the greater depth of the minor mode: this inclination also characterizes other coeval works by the composer. After Mendelssohn’s death, the manuscript was bequeathed by his widow to the celebrated violinist Joachim. This second sonata is the only one which was published during the composer’s lifetime. This Sonata represents an important evidence regarding the stylistic maturity and awareness of the composer, who had ventured in this genre for the first time only three years earlier. Moreover, this Sonata requires a much more varied emotional range than its 1820 sister, and this is better obtained with a more modern keyboard instrument. For this and the next Sonata we decided to use a Conrad Graf fortepiano of 1830. With its remarkable tonal variety in the different registers and its greater sound richness (which results also from its three rows of strings per key and from the presence of numerous pedals, including the moderator), this instrument doubtlessly expressed more efficaciously the vast sonic kaleidoscope of these two more mature Sonatas. This Sonata was certainly performed during the Sunday concerts that were held at the Mendelssohns’ house since 1821 and, thanks to the correspondence of the Mendelssohn siblings, we know that violinist Eduard Reiz performed it with Fanny Mendelssohn in April 1825. Despite the composer’s young age, we can savour an already ripe delicate expressiveness, endowed with a great conceptual depth, which highlights a “serene emotional torment”. The first movement is written in the Sonata Form. A valuable element of originality of this work is its initial recitative entrusted to the solo violin. With its thought-provoking intensity it prepares the listener to a state of melancholic reflection on the most intimate thoughts. The main theme of the following Allegro moderato is characterized by a descending phrase initially performed only by the fortepiano, which later is passed to the violin. The second movement, Poco Adagio, is characterized by great lyricism, with cantabile, almost vocal connotations, while the last movement, once again composed in the Sonata Form, has an even deeper and more tormented character. It is written in the style of a Rondo, in a 6/8 time signature. Almost at the end of the piece, Mendelssohn proposes a new ad libitum section, Adagio, entrusted once again to the solo violin, as if it were a sort of reference to the first movement’s introduction. A curious specificity of this piece, conferring an aura of veiled inner torment, consists in the fact that all three movements end evanescently, fading out in pianissimo, almost a sort of question mark, a goodbye.
Sonata in F major, 1838.
Allegro vivace – Adagio – Assai Vivace
While writing of his third Sonata, Mendelssohn was at the zenith of his fame: he was Director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra since the autumn of 1835. In that same year, however, his father died. In two years the composer would be getting married and, in February 1838, his first son would be born. In the summer of 1838, he began writing the Violin Concerto in E minor, completed in 1845. So we are encountering a Felix Mendelssohn at the summit of his personal and musical maturity. This last sonata has an unmistakably personal style, now fully mastered by the composer, as well as quintessentially romantic connotations. The manuscript is dated in his own hand “Berlin, 15 June 1838” and, contrary to what happened with the first sonata, we can derive from sicure sources the indications that Mendelssohn may have provided for the performance of the piece. He ordered, in fact, a copy of the violin part from the most renowned copyist in Leipzig at the time, Eduard Henschke. This was based on the autograph part that Mendelssohn had carefully checked, in order to rehearse it with violinist Ferdinand David whom Mendelssohn had known for some time, and who at that time held the position of concertmaster at Gewandhaus Orchestra. Although it is a very deep, complete, lyrical, brilliant and extraordinarily beautiful work, Mendelssohn was deeply dissatisfied with it, describing it, in one of his letters of 1839, as a poor Sonata. In the summer of 1839 Mendelssohn seems to have found the inspiration to revise his work. However, from what emerges from his correspondence, he soon lost interest in the new version of the Sonata and did not take it up again for further revisions. There remains, in fact, a new draft of the first movement which, however, ends very soon: the movement’s development has just begun when it is abruptly interrupted. Consequently, Mendelssohn’s third Sonata remains virtually unfinished. Yehudi Menuhin published the Sonata in 1953 but made numerous changes, cuts, additions and corrections. Although his is a very elegant work of revision, which has encountered the favour of both audience and performers of the twentieth century, it cannot be considered as an acceptable source for a philological performance. Lacking a complete new version of the sonata (1839), we opted for the first complete version of 1838. The first movement, brilliant and virtuosic, is written in the classical Sonata Form. The second movement is lyrical and profound, and the two instruments interact animatedly. The third movement has a really addictive ending thanks to its explosive brilliance. It is a Rondo, reminding us of a Perpetuum Mobile. In the end, we can say that the complete execution of these three Sonatas for violin and fortepiano represent for both listeners and performers an excursus, not only on the development of the composer’s creative genius, but almost a painting, a work of visual Art symbolizing the individual’s maturity through the three ages of manhood.
Valentina Nicolai © 2022
Translation: Chiara Bertoglio
Simone El Oufir Pierini
Born in Rome in 1996, Simone El Oufir Pierini began studying music at the age of eight. Aged eighteen, he graduated in piano at S. Cecilia Conservatory of Music, Rome, with highest honors (lode e menzione), and consequently taking part in masterclasses and post-graduate courses with Elisso Virsaladze, Benedetto Lupo, Drafi Kalman, Boris Berman, Nikolai Demidenko, Pavel Gililov. He afterwards grew interest in historically informed piano practice, studying at courses and masterclasses led by Alexei Lubimov, Andreas Staier, Tobias Koch, Gianmaria Bonino, Costantino Mastroprimiano, Stefano Fiuzzi. Subsequently, his interest about historical keyboards in general grew further, and he began studying harpsichord and basso continuo with teachers as Andrea Coen and Giovanni Togni. He is taking the master degree in harpsichord at L’Aquila Conservatory. As pianist he has won a number of prizes in national and international piano competitions, and he performed as a soloist and as a chamber musician for venues as the Auditorium “Parco della Musica” in Rome (in a concert at the second piano with Lang Lang), Teatro Eliseo (Rome), the 34th Festival Internazionale di Portogruaro, the Istituzione Universitaria dei Concerti (IUC, Rome), the Accademia Filarmonica Romana, Teatro Verdi in Trieste, among the others. He also performed as a soloist with the orchestra. He also has performed contemporary music, recording pieces specially composed for fortepiano and being the dedicatee of pieces of the Italian composer Riccardo Perugini (b. 1996). He performs regularly on the fortepiano both as a soloist and a chamber musician, especially in repertoires concerning Viennese classicism, late eighteenth century music and early romantic French music. He obtained a master degree cum laude in Musicology in 2022 at Sapienza University of Rome, writing and discussing a dissertation about the transition from harpsichord to fortepiano in keyboard literature.
Valentina Nicolai, born in Rome, graduated in violin at the Cherubini Conservatory in Florence, in Chamber Music at the Santa Cecilia Conservatory in Rome and in viola da gamba at the Respighi Conservatory of Latina. She took part in masterclasses with S. Diatchenko, D. Schwarzberg, S. Accardo, C. Romano, A. Salvatore, L. Kaplan (from Juilliard School) and in viola with M. Minne. In 2003 she paly like concertmaster violin in Uto Ughi‘s youth orchestra. She recorded the virtuoso solo violin repertory (Bach, Paganini, Ernst, Schnittcke…), with piano (De Sarasate, Bazzini, Ravel, Szymanowsky, Brahms, Franck…) and also as a soloist with orchestra (Dvorak, Chausson, Waxmann, Mozart…) and recorded for CPO, Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, Bongiovanni, Da Vinci Records. She is the winner of several violin competitions and prize. Definitively passes to the historical informed performance on period instruments and took part in masterclasses with baroque violin with Amandine Beyer and Layla Shayegh and chamber music with Ottavio Dantone, and Rinaldo Alessandrini (playing both violin and viola da gamba Bach Sonatas). She also took part in masterclasses in viola da gamba with P. Pandolfo, C. Pasetto, P. Pitzl, W. Kuijken, P. Ross, G. Balestracci, Medieval Music at the European Study Center Adolfo Broegg (Micrologus) and historical dance with G. Giordano and B. Sparti. She performed as a soloist and in chamber music ensemble in several most important Festivals in Italy, Germany, Ucraine, Holland, Finland, Croatia, Malta, France, Austria (Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Salzburg Mozarteum, Wien Konzerthaus...) and for RAI TV, RAI radio 3, Rai Radio Classica, SKY, Radio Vaticana, WDR, Canadian, Chinese and Usa Tv. She is co-founder of the ContrArco Consort and period instruments strings quartet Cover Garden.
(b Hamburg, 3 Feb 1809; d Leipzig, 4 Nov 1847). German composer. One of the most gifted and versatile prodigies, Mendelssohn stood at the forefront of German music during the 1830s and 40s, as conductor, pianist, organist and, above all, composer. His musical style, fully developed before he was 20, drew upon a variety of influences, including the complex chromatic counterpoint of Bach, the formal clarity and gracefulness of Mozart and the dramatic power of Beethoven and Weber.
Mendelssohn’s emergence into the first rank of 19th-century German composers coincided with efforts by music historiographers to develop the concept of a Classic–Romantic dialectic in 18th and 19th-century music. To a large degree, his music reflects a fundamental tension between Classicism and Romanticism in the generation of German composers after Beethoven.