British cellist Guy Johnston talks about dialogue, contrast and sense of line in the German composer’s Classical–Romantic work
Mendelssohn wrote this work for his brother Paul in 1829, when the composer was 20. As we can see from the music, Paul must have been an accomplished amateur cellist! There are some tricky moments, but overall it is wonderfully lyrical and reminiscent of his Song without Words: it’s real chamber music, with a delightful dialogue between piano and cello. There is a feeling of tenderness and happy memory, and a sense that all’s well that ends well. It also has a nice connection with England, because Mendelssohn took it with him on his first sojourn there that same year. The cello was still gaining popularity at this time and it is interesting that here the cello part begins in a traditional, meandering gamba style to support the piano theme; but that gradually it rises up out of the depths into a virtuosic, leading role. There is a sense of development throughout: it starts calmly and warmly in a flowing D major Andante, then gathers momentum after Variations 1 and 2, into the più vivace Variation 3, allegro con fuoco Variation 4 and eventually the presto Variation 7, by which time Mendelssohn has built up a real storm before returning to calm in Variation 8. Be mindful of changes in inflection, bowings and phrase markings where material is repeated, but don’t let these get in the way of the theme. In the end the shape of each phrase governs itself: the markings just hint as to where the line is going, rather than giving explicit instructions. As you play, try also to have a feeling of improvisation and freedom in the moment. Keep the sense of an arc through from the opening theme to the final resolution. Inside that, of course, there’s a lot of fun and variation to be had.
The main theme
This is a beautifully balanced and traditional theme, in Classical–Romantic style. Mendelssohn shares the melody between the instruments and it is very charming, with smiling shapes and curves that give a real sense of sunshine. The dialogue is filled with questions and answers, and the cascading lines remind me of religious music and ringing bells. Aim for a natural tempo that feels right to you, and don’t play any quieter than piano: this is the first thing the audience hears and it needs to sound alive – particularly from bar 9, where the cello takes over the theme. Also, notice that Variation 1 begins pianissimo. If you split the bowing, keep the integrity of the long slur and do not accent each bow change. The piano groupings do not match the cello, so Mendelssohn clearly wants the lines to dance in a different way. Reverse bowings can give a pleasing change of emphasis: I tuck the final two notes of bar 10 into my down bow and begin the next bar on an up. Similarly, I start the pickup to bar 18 with an up bow, then reverse that in bar 20 so that again I vary the emphasis and end up on a down bow on the sforzando of bar 21.
Variations 1 and 2
This is the opening of a new chapter: the journey of the variations has begun. Now the cello has the theme and the piano is playing one hand only, in pianissimo, moving in flowing semiquavers (s) in a similar tempo to before. Think about the connection between the theme and the variations: it can be nice to close off the theme before moving on, but not so much that you have to make a new start. I love the new detail here: at the end of the theme (bars 11–13) is a crescendo– sforzando–diminuendo that leads into the espressivo of bars 14–15, where the cello and piano join hands to agree with one another for a moment as the variation ends. Variation 2 is still calm and pianissimo, but the cello starts to interrupt the piano with little interjections, vying for attention before it grabs the theme. From bar 13 we have the first hint of change as the doors open to propel us into the next variation.
Now the cello takes centre stage, embellishing the main theme in a way that is virtuosic, flamboyant, fun and full of life. It is the most demanding variation for the cellist and you will have to find solutions for bowings and fingerings that work for you. Bars 7–8, with the grace note into bar 8, are particularly tricky: suddenly the cellist is left to be virtuosic and to show off before the music subsides again. I recommend slow practice here, using lots of different rhythms so that you get under the surface of the notes, and in the heat of the moment your reflexes can take over. Variation 4 Here the piano suddenly has octaves in a busy burst of excitement; the cello laughs along, tongue in cheek, making side comments with little whooping gestures – quite clumsily in bar 7, with the low D. It is theatrical and full of humour. The cello reminds us of the theme again in bar 17, almost as if to say to the piano, ‘Hang on a minute, don’t forget about the theme!’ The resonant chords that follow remind us that we are in D major, before a final flourish leads into Variation 5.
Play this pizzicato variation at the end of the fingerboard for clarity – particularly for the sforzando bottom D and F sharp in bars 1 and 3. Really try to get the notes to come off the page. In a way this variation feels least related to the main theme, but the same perfect 4th interval recurs and is still connected. Bar 8 is almost like ballet music before the raucous dialogue between the cello and piano returns.
This is the calm before the storm, filled with bell-like rising and falling gestures. If you use the marked bowing try not to let your left hand disturb the flow of the bow – feel the musical curves within the slurs and always have the piano part in your mind so that you understand how the two parts relate.
Now, with a minor 6th in the cello, we plummet suddenly into G minor. The piano takes off in virtuosic octaves, with the cello trying heroically to challenge it. Think about how the piano sound decays or lives on through the line, and match that as best you can. The fortissimo and marcato moments, for example in bars 22–24, want as much power as possible. This is presto ed agitato with accents everywhere, so push the limits to build the storm. The accents at the beginnings of bars 19 and 21 really highlight the tension between the D and the C sharp before moving down in what sound like klezmer intervals, with lots of texture and resonance. Play near the bridge with lots of sound as the piano thunders off and the cello fights on. By bar 66 the intervals are really extreme and recitative-like. Do whatever you need to do to continue communicating the story. The line repeats itself from the fortissimo in bar 60, gradually falling back with yearning gestures as the storm simmers down.
Variation 8 and Coda
Now the piano plays the whole main theme for the first time, while the cello sits on a drone A. Warm the sound with a little vibrato for each of the hairpins, then let go again as you back away. Notice how the phrasing has changed in the piano: the first bar is all in one slur here, whereas initially the same material was written with a slur over the first two quavers (e) and then two dots under a slur. The articulation and harmonisation are subtly different. Mendelssohn is clearly enjoying evolving the theme in new ways. In bar 16 the cello wakes up from its A to begin the extended coda. The chordal writing from bar 24 is so pleasing, as the music waves and ripples between the strings! Go with the flow of the dramatic accelerando: the music will take you where you need to go. Suddenly, in bar 35, we plummet into the despair of C sharp minor, and bar 43 is extraordinary: we’re left suspended in time. Now the piano is tranquillo and the cello becomes dolce espressivo. This is the last time we hear the theme which, instead of dropping down an octave as it did at the beginning, sings upwards with real jubilation: we’ve reached the peak. I love how Mendelssohn changes the rhythm slightly at the end of bar 53: it is so joyful, as though he couldn’t help but to add a little skip in his step on the way home. From bar 61 there is a lovely ritardando in the repeated phrase; and in bar 70 there’s a charming embellishment at the end of the tied cello A. Finally we resolve into D major in bar 71; from bar 85 the cello is on a low D, the piano begins to wind down and the cello responds in pizzicato. With that final arco D and two chords in the piano, it is as though Mendelssohn closes the book and says, ‘Here ends the story.’
INTERVIEW BY PAULINE HARDING