Guest post by Rhonda Rizzo

When did I begin my love affair with the music of living composers? The moment I found Yvar Mikhashoff’s ‘Incitation to Desire’ CD of tango music for the piano. The smoky cover, the provocative title track – I was caught before I listened to a single piece. Ah, and what a collection! Tangos from multiple eras and in multiple styles. Tangos that spoke of something illicit, a smoky world of furtive late-night romance, smoky dance halls, and sensuality. These tangos represented a freedom I craved – freedom from the performance practice expectations of standard repertoire, and freedom from the years of insecurities and assumptions I brought to the music I’d been playing my whole life. Tangos broke the rules. I’d never danced a tango in my life, but I knew I needed to make music with the freedom I heard in these pieces.

I’d never worked on music by a living composer before I found this CD, but my love of this music was such that I set about tracking down the scores of my favourite pieces. Many of the tangos were unpublished, which meant I wrote to the composer to purchase a copy. Scott Pender’s tango, ‘Ms Jackson Dances for the World’ was one of these. After I received it, Scott and I kept corresponding. We became friends and have remained so for over a decade. And I loved his music – so much so that I eventually played, performed, and taught most of what he’s written for the piano. Ironically, although Chester Biscardi’s ‘Incitation to Desire’ was easier to find (it was published), I never felt I got inside it well enough to perform it publicly. It sat in my music collection, its provocative title and gorgeous writing teasing me with the promise of something I couldn’t quite grasp.

It took me over a decade to put ‘Incitation to Desire’ on a concert programme. I think this was because I needed to live more before I truly understood it. I needed to go tango dancing and feel the freedom and sensuality of the Argentine tango in my bones. I needed to perform and record Piazzolla tangos with my duo partner Molly Wheeler. And, on a deeper level, I needed to break a whole lot of rules. I needed to experience the judgment that comes from choosing to leave a marriage that had been on life-support for years. I needed to experience being swept off my feet by an unexpected grown-up romance that changed my entire life. In other words, I needed to know freedom before I could play it on the piano.

Because ‘Incitation to Desire’ is about sensuality and freedom. Much like the Argentine dance, it relies on the pianist’s ability to instinctively feel their way through the score. This piece begs to be played almost as an improvisation – just the same way that the Argentine tango is danced. It’s the pianist and the piano and the interplay of notes – sensuous, slinky, unapologetic. Chester Biscardi asks for a flexible interpretation of dynamics and tempi. I take this to mean that that this piece is best played from the senses, not the brain; instinct, not reason. In other words, you can’t play this music until you let yourself be seduced by it.

It was my No Dead Guys post about (and YouTube recording of) ‘Incitation to Desire’ that prompted Chester Biscardi to email and tell me how much he enjoyed my performance of it. That correspondence led to me learning ‘In Time’s Unfolding’ and ‘Companion Piece (for Morton Feldman)’, two pieces that, ironically, I still feel I had more of an innate understanding of than the tango that introduced me to Chester’s music. Best of all, Chet and I kept corresponding, and that correspondence blossomed into another friendship that I cherish.

I’ve never coached a student on ‘Incitation to Desire’; I’m not sure it can be done without introducing topics to a lesson that can get an instructor arrested. Furthermore, because it’s so improvisatory, the key to playing this piece well lies within each pianist’s personal experience. If they’ve lived it, they can play it. If not, no amount of musicianship or technique will bring this piece to life. I can, however, offer some general guidelines on how to navigate the score:

1) Don’t be in a hurry. This is slowly unfolding, sensuous music that can’t be forced by the pianist. All forward momentum must come from the sense that the power of the moment itself is what propels the music forward.

2) Don’t dig in too deeply on the scale passages. These are flourishes, the twirl of a tango skirt, a spin. They’re caresses, not demands.

3) Don’t start your accelerando too quickly at m. 29; you’ve got a very long way to do before you hit the end of it. This – like everything else in the piece – should feel inevitable and effortless.

4) Pay very close attention to the pedalling; it makes or breaks the piece.

5) If you’ve never danced the Argentine tango, watch some videos of it. This will explain the start/stop, slow/fast, gesture-driven nature of the score.

6) When you play it, drop all expectations of the piece, surrender to the music, and let it take you where it wants to go.

Sometimes the best way to find ourselves is to break a bunch of rules. Incitation to Desire gave me the permission I needed to follow my instincts rather than others’ expectations. It seduced me into a lifelong passion for the music of living composers. And even today, it reminds me to let moments and situation unfold naturally; it reminds me that the richest life (and my best playing) lies in releasing rigidity and entering the messy, beautiful, passionate dance of earthy, real life with my hands and heart wide open.


Rhonda (Ringering) Rizzo is a writer and a former performing and recording pianist. Her novel, The Waco Variations, was released in the summer of 2018, and her numerous articles have appeared in national and international music magazines, including Pianist Magazine, American Music Teacher, Clavier, Piano & Keyboard, and Flute Talk. A specialist in music that borrows from both classical and jazz traditions, Rizzo released four CDs, Made in America, Oregon Impressions: the Piano Music of Dave Deason, 2 to Tango: Music for Piano Duet, and A Spin on It.

She holds a BA from Walla Walla University and a MM from Boston University and is a passionate advocate of new music and living composers.

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Chester Biscardi, composer


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This atmospheric piece for solo piano, whose Afrikaans subtitle ‘Wind oor die Branders’ translates as Wind over the Waves, is by Richard Pantcheff  (b.1959). It comes from ‘Nocturnus’, a suite of six pieces written for different instruments; the final work in the suite is 4th December 1976, written in memory of Benjamin Britten on the fortieth anniversary of the composer’s death. Pantcheff was mentored in composition by Benjamin Britten in the last years of Britten’s life, and his music displays a distinct affinity with Britten’s soundworld, as well as that of earlier English composers including Vaughan Williams, Herbert Howells, Gerald Finzi and Elizabeth Lutyens.

A prolific composer of choral, organ, chamber and instrumental works, Richard Pantcheff was trained in choral music and composition from an early age, initially as a chorister at Ripon Cathedral, and studied music at Christ Church, Oxford, under Simon Preston and Francis Grier. His music has been widely performed and praised for its originality and technical brilliance, combined with intellectual and emotional depth.

I discovered this piece through ‘De Profundis Clamavi’, a recent recording by British pianist, and friend of mine, Duncan Honeybourne. Duncan is a keen advocate of English music and a champion of lesser-known repertoire, and his recording on which ‘Nocturnus V’ appears (together with Pantcheff’s substantial Piano Sonata, of which he is dedicatee) contains no less than eight world premiere recordings.

The piece is minimalist in style. Its title ‘Nocturnus’ obviously suggests a Nocturne or night piece, and although this work makes stylistic reference to Chopin’s Nocturnes in its flowing accompaniment (almost continuous semiquavers to suggest both waves and wind), it is perhaps closer to Britten’s ‘Night Piece’ (which also appears on ‘De Profundis Clamavi’) and ‘Night’ from Holiday Diary in atmosphere, harmonic language and some of its textures. But while the middle section of Britten’s ‘Night Piece’ is unsettled, full of curious nocturnal twitterings and scurrying, Pantcheff exchanges the fluid semiquavers for a rising chordal figure in triplets which climaxes in fortississimo (fff) chords high up in the piano’s register. The effect is hymn-like and joyful. The music then subsides and pauses, before the semiquaver ‘waves’ return, now in the bass, with soft, piquant chords in the treble.

Although not particularly difficult (I would suggest this piece is around Grade 5-6 standard), the challenge for the player comes in retaining evenness in the semiquaver figures and sustaining long notes in the other register. Sparing use of the pedal will avoid muddying the sound in these sections, while the middle section requires greater projection and brightness of sound. It’s a satisfying piece to play as it offers the player plenty of scope for expression and “sound painting” to portray the music’s inspiration. 


‘Nocturnus V’ by Richard Pantcheff, played by Duncan Honeybourne

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Guest posts are invited for this series. If you would like to submit an article about repertoire you are working on or enjoy playing, please get in touch


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One does not often have the opportunity to hear all of Beethoven’s sonatas for piano and ‘cello performed live in a single afternoon or evening. Yet it’s a fascinating and absorbing experience because to hear the complete sonatas, one is offered a unique snapshot of Beethoven’s creative and compositional development at three key periods of his life.

The Opus 5 Sonatas are a young man’s works: fresh, vibrant, colourful, and humorous. They are clever and witty – take the false cadences in fast movement of the G minor sonata – but nor do they lack depth, or emotion. They are real “concert pieces”, and also remind us that Beethoven was a fine pianist: the Opus 5 sonatas were composed at a time when Beethoven was carving a career for himself as a virtuoso. The F Major and G Minor sonatas are works for piano with ‘cello, not the other way around, and the piano definitely gets the greater share of the virtuosity: Beethoven was clearly not going to allow himself to be overshadowed by some ‘cellist! Over and over again in these sonatas, the piano seems to lead, and the ‘cello replies.

The A major sonata, the Opus 69, is from the middle, most productive, period of Beethoven’s life. It was at this time that the composer wrote his moving Heiligenstadt Testament, in which he contemplated suicide. His deafness was now acute, if not quite total. The Opus 69 sonata marks a turning point, particularly in the variety and organisation of its thematic material, and its improvisatory nature. It was composed during the same year as the Violin Concerto, the Opus 70 piano trios, and the completion and publication of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies. It is an entirely classical sonata in its well-proportioned construction, and, in contrast to the earlier sonatas, where the piano and ‘cello are, more often than not, engaged in witty musical repartee, the first movement of the Opus 69 opens with the ‘cello alone; variations of its expansive main theme and a pair of contrasting secondary motifs allow much contrapuntal and melodic interplay between the two players. This an equal sonata for ‘cello and piano, and the material is distributed between the two instruments with wonderful symmetry. The entire work radiates warmth, positivity, serenity and joy.

The final pair of sonatas, the Opus 102, dating from the beginning of the “late” period of Beethoven’s life, sit alongside the beautiful, pastoral Opus 96 violin sonata and the last three piano sonatas – all truly miraculous works. Like the Opus 96 violin sonata, and the last three piano sonatas, these sonatas seem to inhabit another world entirely, expressing an almost transcendental spirituality. And like Beethoven’s other late works, they are imbued with a sense of “completion”, of acceptance, but most defiantly not resignation!

The last ‘cello sonata, in D major, contains a prayer in its beautiful slow movement, offering an almost Messiaen-like vision of eternity. The final movement is a life-affirming fugue, that most stable and triumphant of musical devices, bringing us most emphatically back to earth.


Cellist Guy Johnston and pianist Melvyn Tan perform Beethoven’s complete Cello Sonatas over the course of two concerts as the finale to this year’s Hertfordshire Festival of Music, on Saturday 11th June in Harpenden.

Full details and tickets here


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Guest post by Howard Smith


Edward Gregson (b.1945), is an English composer of instrumental and choral music, particularly for brass and wind ensembles, as well as music for the theatre, film, and television. He was principal of the Royal Northern College of Music and studied piano with Alan Bush at the Royal Academy, winning several prizes for composition. Gregson retired from academic life in 2008 to concentrate on composition. He continues to sit on a number of Boards relating to music education. He is a fellow at the RNCM, as well as at the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music. A major retrospective of his music was held in Manchester in 2002. 

Gregson’s Complete Music for Solo Piano has recently been recorded by Murray McLachlan on the NAXOS label. It includes the composer’s Album For My Friends (2011), Three Etudes (2020) , Four Pictures for piano duet (1982), Six Little Pieces (1982, rev. 1993) and the remarkable Piano Sonata in one movement (1983). Hidden among these works lies the utterly bewitching Friday a.m.

EMOTIONAL IMPACT 

How to describe a piece of music? Written in 1981, Gregson states that Friday a.m. was his response to the ‘emotional impact’ of listening to the Adagietto from Mahler’s 5th Symphony. Indeed, Gregson does borrow from the first few notes of that glorious melody but thereafter heads in an entirely different direction. Murray McLachlan has described this as a ‘gradual metamorphosis into a lighter style, reminiscent of jazz, as though moving from a philharmonic hall in central Europe to a Manhattan Jazz club around 2am, when everything is subdued and transient.’ It’s a wonderful allusion. But there is nothing subdued about many of the passages of this music. Mahlerian it is. Lounge Jazz it is not, although as I will show, the music pays homage to many Jazz idioms. And does so with great subtlety; without the slightest trace of irony or pastiche. 

Having fallen in love with the piece on CD, I never expected to hear a live performance. Imagine how surprised and delighted I was that Murray McLachlan included it in his recital at the 2021 Chetham’s International Piano Summer School. His performance cemented my obsession with the music. Most striking, McLachlan’s ‘poco a poco stringendo’ starting at bar 39 as the music builds to the ‘ma appassionato’ in bar 48 was electrifying. I was hooked. I promptly placed the piece on my ‘must play’ list, even though the music lies beyond my current ‘grade’ when played to the max. 

THE MUSIC AND ITS HARMONY

Friday a.m. comes in at roughly six and half minutes of delicious harmony and melody. Primarily in the key of G, in common time, there are several contrasting sections. Each, however, reuses idioms, arpeggios and motifs that pervade the music from beginning to end. 

We know this is ‘about’ Jazz, but is not Jazz, from the outset. Gregson outlines in 3rds the chords C major 7 in bar 1, C major 9 in bar 2 and C major 11 in bar 3. Core Jazz colours. This then slides, via a G Minor+Major 7 chord (over Eb)  to A minor 9 (over 11), to rest on a C Lydian arpeggio (sharp 4, F#) in bar 6: n effect, D7 / C (4th inversion). This concludes (molto rit.) what I call the PRELUDE to Friday a.m., which later becomes an emotional REFRAIN at bar 57 over an expanded harmony. Clever. 

We leave bar 6 via the simple device of three ascending notes, D, E, F# sitting over an equally simple interval of a second, C+D, in the LH. The Dominant of G leads to our home key, G and the melody is laid out before us, recalling the Mahler theme. Gregson’s development of the theme takes us firmly into the realm of filmic music. There is great romance here. The harmony progresses as expected, from G, to C, to B-7, A minor, to G major 9. Here, and elsewhere, Gregson layers in Jazz colours. C is C6. A minor is the minor 11th. G major is G major 9. In each arpeggio, Gregson emphasises Jazz colours. But this is most definitely not the Blues. The only ‘blue note’ occurs in bar 30. And we never see a raw Blues progression. No root G7 here.  

Throughout the music, harmonies are laid out using arpeggios in the LH, semi-quavers. They twist and turn, sometimes rising, then falling, sometimes alternating direction. During my practice I found it hard to memorise the many variations. Fortunately they are repeated among the various passages. For example, bar 49, 50 and 51 LH is a ditto of bars 8, 9 and 10. But be careful, Gregson introduces twists, for example, in bar 53, the single notes used in bar 12 LH become parallel 3rds. 

STRUCTURE AND FORM

To the casual listener there are six major sections to the music. They do not correspond to any ‘standard’ form I know. 

The PRELUDE leads to the MAIN THEME. The theme is then RE-STATED (8va), after which there is a section dominated by 4-note (7th) chords in both hands. Let’s call it the CHORDAL ‘middle section’. This is followed by a DEVELOPMENT of the main theme, littered in the LH now by the ever increasing tempo of demi-semi-quavers and the effect of an ascending bass pedal point: A, Bb, C, D, Eb, F, G. From here the piece explodes into what I call a CADENZA, although classical musicians would likely not use this term. The MAIN THEME is then repeated ‘ma appassionato’ in fortissimo. Each melody note in the original RH is now explosively stated using four-note chords, after which the piece subsides to its original dynamics of mezzo-forte and finally to mezzo-piano during which we hear the REFRAIN of the opening motif … C major 7, C major 9 and C major 11. 

The piece ENDS as it began, resting (molto rit.) on that Lydian arpeggio (D7 / C), resolving to G. Gregson then asks us to play ‘Slower’ (bar 63) as he outlines G major 7 and G13, to rest finally on an A minor note cluster with added 4th, D. And as if this were not enough to stamp ‘Jazz’ on the music, Gregson adds, after a pause mark (bar 64), a final pp chord outline: a low G, followed by B, A, E and D. Each note is marked tenuto (deliberate emphasis) until the last D. The dominant. Yes, the G69 chord. It hangs in the air; as if smoke in a room. Friday a.m, as in McLachlan’s Manhattan.

IDIOMATICS

Note clusters are used at various points in the music, another Jazz idiom. For example in bar 9 we have G,A,C,D and E immediately followed by F#. Where such clusters occur the colours ring out as if to further emphasise the love Gregson clearly has for Jazz harmonies. As do I. 

Throughout the music, and often on the 4th beat of the bar, Gregson revels in 2 against 3, 3 against 2, 3 against 4 and 4 against 3 rhythms. I initially found these polyrhythms challenging, especially as the composer has a habit of holding over notes from the previous beat to the first of the triplets; for example in bars 11 and 12 and 18. Just to add insult to injury, Gregson also asks for a dotted rhythm in the LH against a triplet in the RH in bar 18. Tricky for me. 

CHALLENGES IN PERFORMANCE

There are many challenges in playing this music. I judge it to be Grade 8 +, possibly a first diploma level piece? All I know is that the music presented challenges I had not encountered before. Of these, the rapid LH passages, escalating over bars 37 to 44, tested my weak LH. Also the eight-note chords, split between two hands, in bars 26 to 36; some tricky harmony here. And last but not least, the ‘cadenza’ bars 44 to 48, yielding to the climax of the restatement of the main theme in RH chords. I was not familiar with how to play such an emphatic fortissimo, and do so without any harshness. The grandeur of the piece from bar 44 onward is hard to pull off. All dynamics are relative, I realise, but I find it hard to control the volume through the ‘stringendo’ section that precedes the climax. (And generally, there is a need to control dynamics from the outset, keeping the LH ‘mp’ as the motifs and themes are laid out one by one.)

Since I mentioned the LH, my teacher warned me about a “too literal statement of these semi-quaver groups”, what she described as a “childish rendition”. I think Gregson anticipated this with his instruction in bar 7: ‘a tempo (ma con rubato)’.  Yes, but as the music builds there is no chance for rubato and the notes in the LH arpeggios are integral to the harmony. Unless laid out somewhat ‘robotically’ the tension notes (Jazz) are less clear than they need be, I feel. I want to ‘hear’ those carefully placed 7ths, 9ths, 11ths and 13ths. 

Pedalling is always a struggle for me. Fortunately, here it mostly consists of ‘down’ at the start of a bar and ‘up’ at the end, or before the 4th beat. The harmonies are rich and overlaid. And yet this can be too much as the dynamics build. Half pedalling may be needed. 

People use the term ‘colour’ variously. Whatever it means, there are clear points in the music where a shift of ‘colour’ or ‘tone’ is essential. The transition from bar 3 to bar 4 is one such example. The G major harmony shifts to Eb major, the minor 6th of a G minor scale. New colours are also required in bars 10, 15 and 17 and in later bars where similar harmony is used. 

CINEMATICS AND THE ADDED 4TH

I mentioned film music at the outset, and there are many ‘cinematic’ moments in Friday a.m. The most startling begins in bar 20. The melody is re-stated in a high register at 8va. The LH similarly moves to the treble clef and uses simple broken chords to outline the harmony. The effect is delicate, ethereal. As this passage dies away, we hear a suspended fourth pattern on the dominant; D sus 4. No third, Jazz style. This pattern is important later in the ‘cadenza’. The chord is D,G,A,D over three octaves, 11 demi-semi quavers in the time of one beat, repeated twice (bar 45 and 46) and punctuated by a trio of chords in both hands: first inversion of C6, D sus4, root C6. To create dramatic effect the chords are first expressed as a triplet, and then as even quavers. The pattern then leads to a bass descent starting on E. As the bass thunders out huge D octaves, we are led inevitably to a tumultuous D dominant 7th (bar 47) before the return to the main melody. Fortissimo. Friday a.m has reached its cinematic climax. 

In fact, the ‘modern’ sound of the suspended or ‘added’ fourth is sprinkled into many other places in the music, on minor chords. Bar 9 (and similarly in bar 50) is an example. Here, the chord is D minor 7 sus 4, a Jazz chord if ever there was one. 

MORE HARMONY

No analysis of Friday a.m. would be complete without attempting to describe the enigmatic ‘chordal’ MIDDLE SECTION, which begins on the fourth beat of bar 26. Spread between the two hands, eight-note chords lay out a rich harmonic landscape mezzo forte, as if heard indistinctly from afar. The impression is as if one were a passer-by, overhearing the music from the street, only dimly aware of rich music being played inside. 

Gregson uses three devices to achieve the indistinct effect. First, the chords are thick. Second, the use of triplets blur; despite any judicious use of the pedal. Third, as each harmonic statement is made, the LH descends to the far bass, outlining the harmony once again. Then two notes are struck as octaves in the RH, 8va. It’s a call and response motif (in bar 27 and again in bar 30). And it is here that the only ‘blue note’ is used, C#, the augmented fourth (tritone) in G. I may be being fanciful here, but I cannot escape the conclusion that the composer deliberately chose to place this solitary note solely for the passer-by in the street. Was Gregson saying: “if you had any doubt, this is Jazz”. It’s a wonderful illusion when set against the richly painted harmonies? And was the intermittent use of triple time in bars 28, 31, 32, 34 and 35 an attempt to paint this passage, the closest to Jazz in the work, in 7/4 time? It’s the only passage in which Gregson deviates from common time. 

The first (of four) harmonic ‘utterances’  are the chords A minor 9, B minor 7, C6, B minor 7. The voicings are achieved by using a root position chord in the LH and a first inversion chord in the RH. For example, to achieve a full A minor 9, use root A minor 7 in the LH and root C major 7 in the RH. Yes, that means both the 3rd and the 5th are doubled. Rules are there to be broken. Similar approach is taken to three more statements of harmony, taking us further into distinctly jazzy territory. In bar 29 we encounter C dominant 7 #9. In bar 31 we have F# minor 9 +11. And in bar 34 the thickness is increased once again. F# major 7 in the LH with Db major 7 in the RH.  It’s heady stuff but never a cliché. 

FINAL THOUGHTS

To play this music without care is relatively easy. To play this music as the score demands, amplifying the effect of each idiom used, is difficult. To explode through the cadenza (held back) and into the appassionato, and then to subside to the refrain of the opening motif, releasing the emotion, is a challenge for this adult returner. It demands a measured control of the ever-decreasing tempo and languid dynamics over the last eleven bars, all the way to the final notes of the spread G69 chord, each seemingly picked out of nowhere, as if the imaginary Jazz pianist is doodling, unaware that anyone is listening. Friday a.m.

Buy the score of Friday a.m https://www.wisemusicclassical.com/work/61304/Friday-am–Edward-Gregson/


Howard Smith is a keen amateur pianist and the author of Note For Note: Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered. https://linktr.ee/note4notethebook 

In this, the first in a new occasional series of articles on repertoire, pianist Daniel Tong introduces a chamber work with a fascinating “melting pot of cross-reference” which first captivated him as a teenager.


Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio, in C minor, Op. 66 was published in 1846 amidst illustrious company, dedicated to superstar violinist-composer Louis Spohr, premiered with another world-famous violinist Ferdinand David alongside the composer, and presented to Fanny Mendelssohn as a fortieth birthday present. It is a piece full of fire and passion, but also confession and intimacy. Although by no means rarely performed, for many years it has lain in the shadow of its lyrical predecessor in D minor from 1839, an audience favourite ever since Robert Schumann declared it the ‘master trio of the age’. But for me this C minor work is the more dynamic, challenging and multi-layered of the two, notwithstanding Mendelssohn’s low mood at the time: “Nothing seems good enough to me, and in fact neither does this trio”, he wrote to Spohr.

Artists can have a tendency towards the overly self-critical and certainly later composers seemed to agree with my more positive appraisal. Schumann paid homage to this work in his own final Trio from 1851, and Brahms also recalled it, both in his magnificent F minor Piano Sonata, Op. 5, and even more tellingly in the finale of his Op. 60 Piano Quartet. There is a world of allusion in Mendelssohn’s score, from Beethoven in the opening passagework to Chopin’s C♯ Minor Scherzo in the chorale section of the finale. I love this melting pot of cross-reference with Mendelssohn’s Trio at its centre; it is as if a whole host of composers are taking part every time we play the piece.

Indeed the piano trio itself was a medium rich in intertext and personal significance for Mendelssohn’s circle. The moment when it was written was particularly extraordinary: Felix was working on his trio during 1845, the year before Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn wrote their own Piano Trios. In 1847 Robert Schumann produced his first two trios, the first of which was obviously inspired by Mendelssohn’s 1839 Trio, as well as his wife’s work. I imagine them playing these pieces to one another alongside string player friends, each expressing enthusiasm, but also giving advice. There are many accounts of such meetings. And my mind travels further, imagining the feel of the old wooden-framed piano beneath the fingers of these four geniuses, the flicker of the fire in the grate, the starched collars of the men, cinched waists of the women, laughter and wine, because however much a work of art is set free to transcend its origins, these are works of a particular moment. One cannot play the Mendelssohn without the others in the room. Beethoven and Brahms too. Life, in those days, was precious; by the end of 1847, both Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn were dead.

The trio opens (Allegro energico e con fuoco) with swirling piano figures, whilst the strings play threatening, sustained chords. The whole movement tumbles forward with unstoppable momentum, new themes often beginning before the previous one has finished. The piano part alternates between demonic flashes of virtuosity and the simplicity of a chorale-like second theme, in a Faustian tussle, all achieved through a thematic development of which Beethoven would have been proud. There is a sublime, prayer-like oasis in the middle section, but the power of the minor tonality is in the end too much; the opening material first sneaks back in and then hammers the chorale into a desperate fortissimo before Mephistopheles leaves, slamming the door behind him. It is a movement of dramatic concision and pent-up energy that seems to mirror its composer’s mood and hint at the precarity of life, leaving you (literally, as a performer) breathless.

Next comes the movement that captivated me as a teenager, amongst the drama and pathos, a profoundly beautiful song without words, cast as a lilting sicilienne (Andante espressivo). Again Mendelssohn makes use, to beguiling effect, of overlapping phrases where the end of one is also the beginning of the next, but this time there is a disarming simplicity to the action, set in stanzas of three lines each. The middle section increases the tension and momentum as dark clouds pass, before the motion is carried into a reprise of the song, the piano turning arabesques with great delight whilst the singing strings develop their harmony as two soulmates who have experienced life together.

Third comes the scherzo, Molto allegro quasi presto, the three players ready to pounce like tigers, glancing at one another in adrenaline-fuelled anticipation. The violinist gives the merest hint of a nod and the strings are off, deft and fleet, my job initially to support their scurrying semiquavers with dark rumbles of harmony. Once the headlong flight is instigated it cannot be stopped; my hands dance around the keyboard in a complex choreography learned through painstaking repetition. The notes are too fast to devote conscious thought to each one at speed. The central trio section explodes with gleeful laughter, continuing the moto perpetuo without respite, even bursting back in when it has no right to, after the scherzo material has returned. Finally the movement retreats to the shadows with string pizzicatos, the audience let out their breath, often audibly, and we all wonder yet again just quite how we managed it.

Poised on the threshold of the finale, the narrative could still take many turns. Mendelssohn plunges us back into the stormy world of the opening movement with a galloping Allegro appassionato night-ride, the anguished phrases of the cello soaring above, but as in a good thriller, we are still unsure as to how the piece will conclude: will it be in tragedy, along the lines of Beethoven’s ‘Appassionata’ [Piano Sonata] or Brahms’s B Major Trio, or a more positive resolution? When the second theme arrives it recalls the chorale-like music of the first movement – Gretchen perhaps, to complete the Faustian trio of characters – but the masterstroke is still to come. In the central part of the movement, the music fragments and dissipates, as if exhausted or in mental turmoil. A true chorale now emerges, evolving from the Gretchen material that has its root in the first movement, pianissimo, pure and soothing. Initially this seems as if it may just be a typical contrasting episode, as the main themes of the movement re-assert themselves, but during the coda, as the music seems set to spiral into crazed oblivion, the chorale reappears, majestic and fortissimo, like a mighty archangel, to banish the darkness forever. The Trio ends in exalted triumph, hard won, but all the more joyous for it.

My London Bridge Trio, David Adams, Kate Gould and myself, are performing this piece three times in January: on 20th at the Assembly Rooms in Norwich, 22nd in Seaford, Devon, and on 23rd at Conway Hall in London.

Here is the first movement played by a previous incarnation of our trio, when Tamsin Waley-Cohen was violinist:


Pianist Daniel Tong enjoys a diverse musical life and is regarded as one of Britain’s most respected and probing artists. He performs as soloist and chamber musician, and directs two chamber music festivals, as well as teaching and writing. Born in Cornwall, Daniel first came to prominence as piano finalist in the BBC Young Musicians competition (more years ago than he cares to remember) and his life has subsequently embraced a rich variety of musical experience, from concerto performances at Kings Place and St Martin-in-the-Fields in London, chamber concerts at the Wigmore Hall and frequent broadcasts on BBC Radio, to a current role as Head of Piano in Chamber Music at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. He released his first solo CD of works by Schubert for the Quartz label in 2012 and has recently recorded the three Op. 10 Piano Sonatas by Beethoven for Resonus Classics, due for release in Spring 2022. Later next year he records piano works by Brahms for the same label. He also recorded short solo works by Frank Bridge for Dutton as part of a London Bridge Ensemble disc and broadcast Janacek’s piano sonata live on BBC Radio 3. He has appeared as concerto soloist at St Martin-in-the-Fields and King’s Place in London.

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Repertoire in Focus is a new, occasional series on repertoire – and not just repertoire for the piano. The articles will take a single piece or suite of pieces and offer an overview of the music, some analysis, and commentary on practising/performance, together with reasons why this music is special or meaningful for the player and why they have selected it. For teachers, it may also be an opportunity to highlight some of the challenges and pleasures of teaching specific pieces.

Guest posts are invited, from both professional and amateur musicians. For a sample, please see this article by French Horn player Ben Goldscheider.

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This site is free to access and ad-free, and takes many hours to research, write, and maintain. If you find joy and value in what I do, please consider making a donation to support the continuance of this site

Make A Donation