Gaia Sokoli Plays Fanny Mendelssohn

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F. MENDELSSOHN: Piano Sonata in G min. Ostersonate. Sonatensatz in E. Piano Sonata in C min. / Gaia Sokoli, pno / Piano Classics PCL10187

As the liner notes to this marvelous release indicate, “The figure of Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847) is still awaiting an adequate revaluation. Fanny and Felix studied composition with Karl Zelter, who gave them an excellent foundation in contrapuntal technique, and piano with Ludwig Berger, a pupil of Hummel. Fanny was also a piano virtuoso and often performed in Sunday domestic concerts in their Berlin home, also in duo with her brother Felix. Only in 1845 did Fanny decide to publish her first composition under her own name, since she had always been discouraged (not to say opposed) in her public activity as a composer, by her brother and the rest of her family. So her father wrote to her in a letter dated July 16, 1820: ‘Music will perhaps become his [Felix’s] profession, while for you it can and must be only an ornament’.”

And as we know, this attitude crushed her spirit. She married and had a son, Sebastian, after which she wrote to her brother and said that she felt the urge to return to composition. Felix wrote back that since she was now a wife and mother, domestic duties needed to take preference. But Fanny published a collection of her songs in 1847, and then later that year died of a stroke. Felix was so shaken by this that his own health declined drastically, and he, too was dead six months later, aged only 38.

Like her brother, Fanny’s music was essentially very lyrical and melodic; both siblings learned from Zelter and admired Mozart, but both expanded the Mozartian style, particularly in the use of harmony, and took it rather further.

These piano works are early pieces by Fanny, but they are interesting and well written nonetheless. One would be hard put, in a blindfold test, to say who the composer was, particularly since her brother only wrote one Piano Sonata rather late in his career (Op. 105) and although Fanny’s music often resembled his—her Easter Sonata was erroneously credited to Felix before 2010—she was by no means a less substantial shadow, as Clara Schumann was of  her husband, Robert. The opening Piano Sonata in G minor can very easily stand on its own merits without any need to compare her to Felix.

I should also point out that it helps a great deal that pianist Gaia Sokoli, who is Italian despite her Eastern European-appearing name, is an outstanding artist who plays these works with fervor and commitment. She has a clear vision of how this music is supposed to go, understands the style, and plays it with exactly the right combination of forward momentum and lyrical effusion. Like Felix in his early years, Fanny was prone to very fulsome development of her themes, thus there are moments when one may feel that she is gilding the lily a bit much, yet the music is interesting and never bores the listener. She may not have been all that forward-looking, but she was not a composer of dainty “feminine” music so beloved in salons then and later. This is solid music written by an outstanding musical mind and is not to be confused with the drivel written by Amy Beach or others of that ilk. In the second movement of the Ostersonate she creates a wonderful fugue that would have been the envy of any male composer of her time. This is followed by a “Scherzo” that is even better than the one her brother wrote for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and that, in turn, is followed by an “Allegro con strepito” last movement of utter brilliance and originality. No wonder Felix doted on her so much when writing his own music: he often sent her scores of his that were in progress to get her reaction, and always followed her feedback.

Even the brief Sonatensats (Sonata Movement) has something substantial to offer, with its triplet accompaniment and constantly shifting harmonies. But there is so much more to discover in this music that I won’t spoil the fun for you. Needless to say, this is a must-have CD for all of you Fanny Mendelssohn admirers out there…and even, I dare say, for admirers of her brother.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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