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Mendelssohn, lost and found

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Given history's vagaries, even a long-dead composer's "complete" works are not necessarily complete, not with possible discoveries still lurking in libraries and archives. R. Larry Todd knows this, being the author of the standard biography of Felix Mendelssohn, the vast majority of whose compositions remained unpublished for decades after his death. Todd is also a pianist and in 2012 collaborated with cellist Nancy Green on a recording of Mendelssohn's complete works for cello and piano (along with selected works by Mendelssohn's sister Fanny — also the beneficiary of a Todd biography.) Only they weren't quite complete, a discrepancy Todd and Green have now rectified by re-releasing the CD with a bonus recording of Mendelssohn's 1830 Variations in A major.

Composed in collaboration with Viennese cellist Joseph Merk, the Variations were long known only from a passing mention in one of Mendelssohn's letters. In 2008, the piano part turned up in the Berlin Staatsbibliothek, but the cello part remains missing. A reconstruction was first attempted by Italian composer Gabrio Taglietti, who provided a cello part of concert-hall virtuosic flash. Todd created his own, very different reconstruction for the recording: more suffused with salon-sized elegance, more idiomatically Mendelssohnian.


The Variations were probably written for Denis and Marianne Eskeles, Mendelssohn's cousins, children of the influential Viennese banker Bernhard von Eskeles. (Denis was a better-than-average cellist, to whom Merk had already dedicated another set of variations.) That aristocratic milieu, perhaps, hints at why the Variations, and so many other pieces, remained unpublished: Mendelssohn — unlike, say, Beethoven or Schubert — never needed the money. He could afford to designate works either for print, for concerts, or simply for friends and acquaintances.

Merk was a torchbearer at Beethoven's funeral. He was, for years, Vienna's preeminent cellist, regularly receiving visits — and pieces — from traveling composers (including Frédéric Chopin, who dedicated a rare non-piano opus to Merk). He was originally a violin prodigy, but, while still a child, a vicious dog attack left his left arm shorter than his right. No longer able to raise his arm to the violin's fingerboard, he mastered the cello instead.


The recording carries its own tale of recovery: in December 2012, Todd suffered a stroke, incapacitating his right side — and hand. After months of therapy, he was able to return to the studio and complete the project. Like Merk and Mendelssohn's Variations, it is a reminder of history's contingency, how easily things get lost — and how they are sometimes found.

"Felix Mendelssohn: The Complete Works for Cello & Piano," with Nancy Green, cello, and R. Larry Todd, piano, is available at www.jrirecordings.com.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.