16 March 2017
Hear Sofya Gulyak play this recently discovered piano sonata previously attributed to Fanny's brother Felix
Second coming for Fanny Mendelssohn’s Easter Sonata
A substantial piano sonata by Fanny Mendelssohn has received its first public performance and UK premiere, almost 190 years after it was written.
Pianist readers will be more familiar than most with the overlooked figure of Fanny, who gave only one public recital and was discouraged both by her father and especially her brother Felix from making money or a reputation from her composition. Nonetheless, she wrote music throughout her life: mostly songs and miniatures such as the Melodie Op 4 No 2 from his Kinderstück, which was published in the Scores section of the current Pianist 94.
The 22-minute, four-movement ‘Easter’ Sonata is of another order of magnitude and significance. In the diary of his tour to Scotland in 1829, Felix recounts playing the newly composed sonata on board a steamer moored in Liverpool docks. As recently as 2003, Felix’s biographer R Larry Todd could still refer to it as lost, but in fact the manuscript turned up in Paris in 1970. The owner of the manuscript was reported to have said, ‘It can’t be by a woman. It’s a masterpiece.’ However, the musicologist Angela Mace Christian proved the authenticity of the sonata, which was performed at the Royal Academy of Music in London on 8 March by Sofya Gulyak (pictured, left, at the Radio 3 recording studio), winner of the 2005 Leeds International Piano Competition.
The sonata’s name discloses a dramatic narrative which comes to a dramatic head in the finale with an evocation of the curtain of the Temple being torn in two, followed by a calm and joyful, chorale-like coda. Gulyak’s performance (broadcast live on BBC Radio 3) was as ambitious and volatile as Fanny’s creative inspiration: ‘The Sonata says a lot about her as a composer,’ remarks Gulyak. ‘We can feel the influence of Beethoven and Schubert, but her voice is very much her own.’