Mendelssohn-Hensel: Piano Sonatas / Heather Schmidt

Regular price $17.99
Added to Cart! View cart or continue shopping.
The past three decades have seen a slow but steady discovery of Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel's extensive solo piano output. Listen to this remarkable music without knowing the composer's identity, and you might guess Fanny's younger brother Felix, although her idiomatic keyboard mastery charts darker, Schumann-esque waters and also looks ahead to Brahms. Some of Fanny's adventurous harmonic forays are pure César Franck, albeit 30-odd years before that composer's heyday.

Heather Schmidt's Mendelssohn-Hensel recital presents a well-contrasted selection of works in large and small forms. My Schumann comment applies to the swirling and intense C minor Allegro molto that opens this disc. If Brahms had rewritten a Felix Mendelssohn Song Without Words in the manner of his own late-period Klavierstücke, he'd come up with Fanny's G minor Notturno, while the D minor Allegro molto agitato's Bachian demeanor and gothic octaves (effortlessly executed by Schmidt, incidentally) suggest Busoni in embryonic form.

The three-movement C minor sonata oozes melodic inspiration in every bar, especially in the slow movement's moving introspection and modulations that give Schubert a run for his money. Although Schmidt plays this movement as a true Andante con moto and with little rubato, would a slower, freer approach make a stronger expressive impact? On the other hand, she fully comprehends the four-movement G minor sonata's inherent power and passion, and delivers more dynamically charged renditions of the Allegro molto agitato and Adagio movements than the equally fluid yet more restrained Beatrice Rauchs on BIS.

Schmidt matches Rauchs' delicacy in the gorgeous Scherzo at nearly twice the basic tempo--a good call. However, Rauchs' supple, forward-moving Presto finale scores over Schmidt's slower, slightly square-toed approach. All told, this is a valuable addition to the Mendelssohn-Hensel piano discography.

--Jed Distler,



MENDELSSOHN-HENSEL Piano Sonatas: in c; in g. Allegro molto in c; Notturno in g; Lied in E?; Adagio in E?; Andante con moto in E; Sonata o Capriccio; Allegro molto agitato in d; Schluss Heather Schmidt (pn) NAXOS 8.570825 (67:25)

Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel composed some 500 works, mostly piano miniatures and songs. She wrote one orchestral overture, a few larger-scale choral works, and a handful of chamber compositions, her masterpiece being the lovely Piano Trio in D Minor, op. 11, which deserves to be a repertoire staple. Most of her output remains unpublished—her op. 1 appeared in print only in 1846, just a year before her untimely death—which, on the evidence presented here, is a great shame. True, her works are not on the same compositional plane as those of her renowned brother Felix, being rather foursquare in formal design; but then the social circumstances of her time did not allow her to cultivate her muse to the same degree. For her, music had to remain an avocation, subordinated to what her father wrote to her in 1828, a year before her marriage: “your real calling, the only calling of a young woman—I mean the state of a housewife.”

This disc presents works falling into two distinct periods. The juvenile pieces from 1823–24 are the C-Minor Sonata, Sonata o Capriccio, Allegro molto agitato , and Schluss ; the remainder, from her maturity, were composed between 1838 and 1846. Stylistically, they resemble those of her sibling so closely that he even published a few of her pieces under his name. For example, the Allegro molto in C Minor, the Allegro molto agitato in D Minor, and the finale of the C-Minor Sonata all immediately recall the volatile opening Allegro of Felix’s Piano Concerto No. 1. That said, she was no mere imitator; these are solidly crafted compositions with their own voice, particularly in their gift of winning melody. In general, Fanny uses a longer, more continuously flowing melodic line, and is more overtly emotional, more given to passionate outburst, more inclined to explore introspection and melancholy. The weaknesses are overly regular metrical phrasing, over-reliance on alternating runs of triplets and of eighth (or 16th) notes for contrast, and unadventurous harmonic progressions. Although the turbulent G-Minor Sonata is the major work here, the Adagio and the Andante con moto , both in E?, deserve special mention as particularly lovely brief essays.

This is the only available recording of the C-Minor Sonata and some (not all) of the shorter pieces. Peter J. Rabinowitz ( Fanfare 21:4) highly praised the BIS issue of the G-Minor Sonata and accompanying miniatures with Béatrice Rauchs, while noting that “she sometimes plays down the music’s dramatic and expressive potential.” The identical observation applies here. Heather Schmidt is a thoroughly accomplished pianist, who plays with lovely tone, fluent technique (an absolutely pearling legato), and expressive insight and sensitivity. My only reservation is that—dare I say it?—the playing is a bit too feminine; even more could be gotten out of these pieces with the occasional application of a more masculine assertiveness in accent and phrasing, a willingness to punctuate the seamless flow and delicacy with something a bit more rough-hewn. But that is a very minor caveat; this music and this performance, at half the cost of the BIS issue, both deserve to reach a much wider audience. The recorded sound is clear, warm, but not too resonant. Recommended to all lovers of early-Romantic piano repertoire.

FANFARE: James A. Altena

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 8570825

  • UPC: 747313082575

  • Label: Naxos

  • Composer: Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel

  • Performer: Heather Anne Schmidt