This bargain-priced collection of the Mendelssohn symphonies
has much to commend it. To begin with, it is inclusive of the apprentice
symphonies for strings, composed when Mendelssohn was barely a teenager;
and beyond that, all the performances are lively and stylish. The seven
discs have individual cases, but come together in a card box.
Mendelssohn's family background was sufficiently wealthy
to allow him the luxury of hearing his earliest compositions performed
to a high standard, and this enabled him to develop rapidly, so much
so that in his teens he wrote music - such as the Octet (1825) and the
Midsummer Night's Dream Overture (1826) which remain central to the
repertory to this day. This creative apprenticeship centred upon the
composition of twelve symphonies (and one individual movement) for string
orchestra, all of which he had completed by the age of fourteen.
The performance of these works were intended to be
given within the Mendelssohn family circle, but the music is none the
worse for that. There is some skilfully contrived string writing, including,
for example, subtleties such as divided violas, which the boy evidently
learned from Mozart. But as a child prodigy, Mendelssohn is the more
remarkable phenomenon. These early pieces are stylish and full of vitality;
but they hardly rank as great music. Rather they can be seen as urbane
music composed with an astonishing grasp of string techniques and artistic
artifice, though derived from existing models. The numbering of the
later symphonies makes a clear and useful differentiation between the
two standards Mendelssohn achieved.
The performances of the string symphonies are all given
by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under Kurt Masur, and very good
they are too. In fact all that needs to be done to gauge the standard
is to listen to the opening of the very first of the set. The music
is immensely fresh and appealing, and so too is the recorded sound.
The supporting documentation, however, is relatively thin, and in the
case of these early symphonies does not tell us the exact provenance
of the recordings. This is a real pity because the sound is excellent
and so are the performances. An added bonus is the inclusion of the
revised version of Symphony No. 8, including wind instruments also,
which makes for some fascinating comparisons with the original. They
are both contained on the same disc.
The formal title Symphony no. 1 for full orchestra
was given to the C minor symphony composed in 1824. In fact the manuscript
bears the title 'Symphony no. 13', but this was altered ten years later,
when the work was published. The numbered sequence of Mendelssohn's
five mature symphonies makes no real sense, but has become so firmly
embedded in the repertory that a chronological re-ordering will likely
In the C minor Symphony the command of string techniques
and textures which had been displayed in those earlier 'string symphonies'
was now extended to the full orchestra of the classical period, and
the writing for woodwind is particularly successful. But above all this
music shows how Mendelssohn had absorbed contemporary trends: the first
movement Allegro, for instance, contains many echoes of Weber and Beethoven.
The finale contains a wide range of moods contained in a skilfully contrived
structure, and as such is the finest movement. Franz Brüggen's
performance is well judged in matters of tempo and phrasing, and captures
just the right balance between momentum and shaping of detail. The recorded
sound is clear and truthful.
Brüggen is a reliable guide also in the famous
Italian Symphony, No. 4. The crisp articulation of the woodwind rhythm
at a spanking tempo sets the tone, and when the strings enter with the
theme, the music takes flight. The sound is good but not in the demonstration
class, and the string music in the slow movement does not have quite
the glow that some other recordings achieve (Abbado and the LSO on DG,
for instance). But this is still an interesting performance, more than
acceptable technically and artistically.
If the Italian is the best known of the symphonies,
No. 2, otherwise known as the Hymn of Praise, is perhaps at the opposite
extreme of popularity. It is not hard to understand why, since it is
a hybrid of symphony and oratorio, lasting well in excess of an hour.
It was commissioned in 1840 for the celebrations surrounding the four
hundredth anniversary of the invention of printing, and the first performance
was given in Bach's church, St Thomas's, Leipzig.
A three-movement opening Sinfonia leads to an extended
choral finale in a sequence of nine parts. Mendelssohn was aware of
the precedent set by Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in having a choral finale
after three instrumental movements; but here the balance is quite different,
since the finale tends to dominate the work. Even though the earlier
sections are not insubstantial, they form a prologue, rather than the
greater proportion of the work demanding a symphonic resolution, as
was the case in Beethoven's masterpiece.
The Hymn of Praise became enormously popular with Victorian
choral societies, but it has only been in recent years that the music's
value has once more been appreciated. After the first performance, his
friend Robert Schumann praised Mendelssohn in terms which amplify the
work's noble intentions: 'One must confess that in Leipzig German music
blooms to such a degree that, without arrogance, it can compare with
the richest and largest flower gardens of any city. What an abundance
of great works of art have been produced here!'
This performance, recorded live in Utrecht with Edo
de Waart conducting, is particularly well shaped and controlled. The
recorded sound offers a good sense of the occasion, with depth and atmosphere,
although the balancing of the three solo voices is not always entirely
comfortable. However, anyone wanting to experience the work will not
be disappointed, and again the presence is felt from the very first
bar. For this is a fine work, fully worthy of Mendelssohn's genius,
and this performance deserves to bring that to a wider currency.
The remaining disc couples the remaining two symphonies:
the Scottish and the Reformation. Although the performances took place
several years apart, the same orchestra features each time. The Hilversum
Radio Chamber Orchestra is skilful ensemble, well equipped in each department,
but in each of these symphonies Mendelssohn's romantic expression surely
demands a richer string sound, more full-bodied than is found here.
Since this issue is raised in each performance, it seems fair to link
it with the size of the string body rather than the recordings themselves.
It is not an overwhelming issue, but it is a factor.
The Scottish Symphony has a complex history. First
conceived during Mendelssohn's first visit to Britain in 1829, it was
left aside for many years and not completed until 1842, when it was
published with a dedication to Queen Victoria. Despite the clearly programmatic
associations, there is no attempt at musical narrative or description,
though the composer undoubtedly strove to create atmosphere from the
inspiration of time and place. The general structure is probably the
most ambitious to be found in any of his symphonies, since the four
movements are designed to be played continuously and ideas are inter-related
between them. The instrumentation is always colourful and imaginative,
thereby enhancing the music's range of mood. All these strengths are
felt in this performance conducted by Arnold Oestman (best known for
his excellent work in Mozart operas at Drottningholm), though the performance
does tend towards the classical rather than the romantic. The broad
closing gesture is somewhat under-stated, very much in keeping with
this conception. This is a valid interpretation, but it is also worth
hearing a more full-blooded romantic performance (such as Abbado's).
Mendelssohn's Symphony no. 5 actually came second in
order of composition. It was only published in 1868, more than twenty
years after his death, under its present title, Reformation Symphony.
He conceived the idea of celebrating the tercentenary of the Augsburg
Confession, the signing of which on 25th June 1530 defined the doctrine
of the Lutheran Church, and was therefore one of the most important
events of the German Reformation.
The symphony was therefore written during the winter
of 1829-30, after Mendelssohn had returned to Berlin from his visit
to Britain. But the religious festival, for which it had been intended,
was then cancelled as a result of the political instability that swept
across Europe that year. The first performance eventually took place
in November 1832 in Berlin, but thereafter the work seems to have disappeared
from the repertory. It has only been in recent years that its true value
has been appreciated, for the music has strong symphonic credentials
as well as using music with potent religious overtones. For example,
the 'Dresden Aman', employed by Wagner in Parsifal, is important here,
and so too Luther's chorale 'Eine feste Burg'.
Jos van Immerseel conducts a lively and dramatic performance
of this marvellous symphony, and the recording communicates the sense
of occasion at the live performance. Many of the issues which pertain
to the Scottish Symphony resurface here, but they do not detract from
the excitement or the symphonic momentum. The more poetic aspects of
the work are beautifully managed, with some distinguished playing by
the wind principals in particular.
Although the documentation of this set is restricted
in scale, there are some interesting introductions by David Doughty.
At this bargain price there can surely be no better way for the discerning
collector to acquire this repertoire. Mendelssohn is one of those composers
whose range is wider, whose achievement is greater, than is commonly
supposed, and his cause is well served here.
The slow introduction to the opening movement is extensive
and has a brooding character inspired by Mendelssohn's visit to the
Holyrood chapel. The Allegro which follows maintains the mood of melancholy
but brings more turbulence, while symphonic unity is ensured by the
new material's derivation from the introduction. A more animated section
acts as transition and a solo clarinet presents the second subject against
a counterpoint, in fact the first subject, in the strings. The development
is typically ingenious, and powerful too, while the transitional theme
is omitted from the recapitulation, to be held back until the turbulent
coda and the return of the brooding music with which the music began.
For contrast, the second movement is a lightweight
scherzo of the type that only Mendelssohn could write, its semiquaver
activity giving just the right point to the clarinet's dotted quaver
tune. The textures here are inspired and achieve the composer's unique
'fairy music' quality. The second subject enters pianissimo but builds
to an ecstatic climax, whereas the movement ends with a diminuendo of
The Adagio is prefaced by a short and forceful statement
which makes way for a graceful string theme which is treated to various
developments, although its outline always remains clear. The colourful
orchestration maintains the level of interest, until a more serious
idea appears. This stems from what was heard at the opening of the movement,
and is given out three times in between statements of the main theme.
Once more there is an effective conclusion; the theme is heard in broken
phrases on the clarinet against the quiet martial rhythms of the timpani.
The finale sets out in sprightly fashion, but as well
as the lively rhythms there are several fine tunes which are developed
with much contrapuntal ingenuity. The design is a regular exposition
and development, but then in stead of the expected recapitulation there
is a lengthy and noble peroration, Allegro maestoso assai. The theme
is one of Mendelssohn's most memorable inspirations, but it is not really
new, since like so much else it derives from the Symphony's introduction.
Therefore its majestic appearance succeeds in conveying symphonic logic
as well as romantic expressiveness.