Fanny Mendelssohn’s Piano Music

cover PCL10238

F. MENDELSSOHN: Das Jahr, H.385. Nocturne in G min., H.337. Nocturne Napolitano. Introduction and Capriccio in B min., H.349 / Martina Frezzotti, pno / Piano Classics PCL 10238

My regular readers know that I have been saying, repeatedly over the past two or three years, that Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel was a much greater composer than Clara Schumann, who somehow keeps acing Fanny out in terms of CD space. Here, Italian pianist Martina Frezzotti (b. 1986), a pupil of Lazar Berman, gives us more of her piano music than just the sonatas and Piano Trio which are much more common.

Indeed, I learned by poking around online that Das Jahr was written in 1841 and presented by Fanny to her husband Wilhelm as a most remarkable Christmas present. Earlier in the year, when still working on them, she had written to an artist friend:

I’m engaged on another small work that’s giving me much fun, namely a series of 12 piano pieces meant to depict the months; I’ve already progressed more than half way. When I finish, I’ll make clean copies of the pieces, and they will be provided with vignettes. And so we try to ornament and prettify our lives–that is the advantage of artists, that they can strew such beautifications about, for those nearby to take an interest in.[1]

Fanny Mendelssohn

The composer

Most of the pieces have subtitles, but some don’t. January, subtitled “A Dream,” opens as a slow, moody piece, but has some surprising and daring fast passages that seem to be juxtaposed with the theme rather than a development of it. It’s a highly imaginative piece, for once sounding very different from that of her brother. February (“Scherzo”) uses a fast 6/8 theme that sounds a bit like Felix’s “Scherzo” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, except with changes into the minor where her scampering elves seem rather more sinister. March has no subtitle, but is a minor-key piece in a straight 4, here with occasional dips into the major. Halfway through, the music slows down in tempo as the music becomes almost an elegy. April (“Capriccioso”) is another excellent piece with surprising rising chromatics as the music goes up the scale, plus dips into neighboring keys, and at the end of this piece the music moves into May (“Spring Song”) without a break.

June’s “Serenade” is, surprisingly, in D minor, thought it, too morphs into the major now and then. Halfway through, in fact, Fanny indulges in some very surprising harmonic shifts that would have made Robert Schumann proud, and the piece stops abruptly before we get to languish in the steamy “Serenade” for July, with its surprising, rumbling bass line in the middle. A bit later on, the right hand plays a single-note “walking” theme while the left, in the middle of the keyboard, explores a contrasting theme in chords. August (no subtitle) is surprisingly chipper, almost sounding like a springtime Maypole dance. (And mind you, Fanny wrote these pieces in between cleaning house, cooking and caring for her baby, all things that Felix didn’t have to deal with!)

September’s “Am flusse” is a mezzo-forte minor-key piece in 6/8 rhythm, while October is a peppy major-key march (apparently, she had some happy Octobers!). November is sad and melancholy, with interrupted rhythms and a pensive, three-note motif played (on different notes, but in the same basic sequence) in the upper right hand  while the rest of the music hangs around the middle of the keyboard—until about a third of the way through, when the music suddenly picks up in tempo, built around a theme made up of short tremolos that morphs and changes as it wends its way along. December’s music resembles falling snowflakes with the hint of winter winds in its fast-paced, swirling themes. But halfway through, the music changes into a sort of march, then stops dead before resuming as a sort of sad little chorale. Oddly, this theme is carried over to the “Postlude,” where she worked it out in a different manner.

The two nocturnes are a clear indication of how much more interesting of a composer Fanny Mendelssohn was than Chopin; her music surprises with its unusual twists and turns, whereas his nocturnes were pleasant but unsurprising. We then end with the Introduction and Capriccio in B minor, another excellent work.

Frizzotti plays all of these with a wonderful sense of involvement and energy, almost as if she had written them herself. Highly recommended!

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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[1] Quoted and translated in R. Larry Todd, Fanny Hensel: The Other Mendelssohn (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 275.

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