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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809 - 1847)
String Symphony #2 in D (18950) [10.25]
String Symphony #3 in e (1850) [8.19]
String Symphony #5 in Bb (1850) [10.27]
String Symphony #11 in f (1850) [35.29]
String Symphony #13 in c "Sinfoniesatz" (posth.) [7.19]
Concerto Köln
Notes in English, Deutsch, and Français.
Recorded at Studio Deutschland Radio, Cologne, Germany, March 1996
Originally issued in 1996 on Teldec Das Alte Werk 0630 13138-2 as "Vol. 3" of the complete string symphonies.
WARNER CLASSICS ELATUS 2564-60440-2 [72.30]

Comparison Recordings
William Boughton, English String Orchestra (3) Nimbus 5141/2/3

I have always loved these works written by a "great-grandpupil" of Bach (Mendelssohnís mother who was his first teacher studied with a student of Bachís) and felt they preserve an authentic Baroque flavor with just a little bit of Romantic sugar thrown in. Much to my delight, here they are performed just that way. The vigorous tempi and incisive phrasing call to mind Baroque concerto style, and the Mendelssohn sweetness is too strong not to survive even if it is not given a specific nod. Most other performances play them more in a sentimentalized romantic style and while the music is strong enough to survive this easily, they end up sounding old fashioned, more like attempts at something rather than fully successful works of art.

When Mendelssohn wrote his first "official" symphony, a scantily successful student work self-consciously imitating Beethoven, it was first given the number 13, and these early symphonies were considered honorable forebears. But Victorian musicologists were having none of it. The string symphonies were merely studies, and hence discardable whereas the attempt at Beethoven, however far of the mark, was "serious" music and was awarded the number 1. Here things are further confused by having a posthumously published sketch designated as the thirteenth string symphony. It wasnít until I got an LP with Mendelssohnís first on one side and Schubertís first on the other side, and then got the sides mixed up, that I came to realize how truly awful Mendelssohnís "first" Symphony is compared with such a splended work as the Schubert.

But the Victorians, even those who worshipped Mendelssohn, didnít realize that genius doesnít study, genius doesnít struggle through the mire of failed attempts towards a distant shining goal of perfection. Mendelssohnís earliest works, like Mozartís, were perfect, or as close to it as is humanly possible. Mendelssohn only wrote bad music when he was trying to please others by constructing artificiality, and thus we have the eminently discardable "First" and "Second" Symphonies as monuments to this futile wrongheadedness. Fortunately for us, and for Brahms, Mendelssohn was firmly back on the track by the time of his Third Symphony, and Brahms, who was afraid to try to imitate Beethoven, had no problem imitating Mendelssohn to produce his own First Symphony.

Am I the only one who, while listening to Straussís Metamorphosen and reading how Strauss is quoting the Beethoven Eroica hears just as much borrowed from the Mendelssohn String Symphony #8 in d?

Listening to the lushly sensual Boughton recordings one would hardly want the works to be played any faster, but the smaller forces used by the Concerto Köln allow a chamber music clarity and incisiveness, so not only are there faster tempi, but there is also more agile phrasing, possible and desirable. And, Boughton adds enough sugar that you need to drink a full glass of water after each symphony. And there is a slightly artificial sounding "ring" to the acoustic on the Boughton recordings. But the one advantage Boughton has is that his is a complete set of the twelve. Elatus reissues unfortunately tend to excerpting, so we are not likely to hear in this series Concerto Köln play the remainder of the works, that is volumes 1 and 2, and that is a shame. The original issue numbers on Teldec Das Alte Werk are: Volume 1: 4509-94565-2 and Volume 2: 4509-98435-2.

At least one recording of all these early Symphonies belongs in every collection, and if you already have one such recording, you might want to add this one also.

Paul Shoemaker

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