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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809 - 1847)
Symphony for Strings No. 9 in C Minor (1823)
Symphony for Strings No. 11 in F Minor (1823)
The German Chamber Academy of Neuss (Deutsche Kammerakademie Neuss)/Johannes Goritzki
Recorded Westdeutcher Rundfunk, Köln 1991
CLAVES CD 50-9002 [67.42]
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Surprisingly, these charming works were not discovered until 1950 and did not become well known until the 1960s. A product of Mendelssohn's well trained youth, in them he put into practice the musical disciplines that he had learnt from Bach and Mozart. But in the later symphonies we can hear him gradually developing the voice that would be more fully apparent in the Octet and the Overture to a Midsummer Night's Dream.

There have been quite a few recordings of these enterprising works, both on modern and period instruments and Naxos has issued a 3 CD set with the Northern Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Nicholas Ward, performing all 12 completed symphonies and the fragmentary no. 13. It is understandable that string groups are drawn to the symphonies as they demand plenty of liveliness and technical skill, but do not make excessive interpretative demands.

The two symphonies recorded here both have Swiss connections. The trio of no. 9 is entitled "La Suisse" and the scherzo of no. 11 is entitled "Swiss Song". Evidently the musical material includes Swiss folk songs. The symphonies were written in 1823 (when Mendelssohn was 14). In 1822 he had visited, and been impressed by, the Swiss Alps. Though the booklet makes much of the Swiss connection, for me the prevailing feeling seems to be that of Mozart, with the teenage Mendelssohn seeking to come to terms with his classical training. He already had a pronounced ear for the subtleties of scoring, frequently using divided strings and showing a distinct liking for viola tone.

This fondness for violas is particularly apparent in the opening movement of no. 9. Here a striking Grave introduction develops from a strong dramatic opening, showing the players off at their best. This leads to a sprightly Mozartian Allegro, crisply played with a prominent running viola part. The development section is impressively contrapuntal and Mendelssohn springs a small surprise with the rather contrapuntal coda. The gentle Andante with a beautifully played prominent singing solo violin line, part of a four-part violin texture which is contrasted with a darker middle section in the minor, again with a strong viola texture - divided violas. cellos and basses. The orchestra do very well at catching the nuances of Mendelssohn's rich scoring in these pieces. The Andante is followed by the Scherzo with the Swiss Trio. This uses arpeggio figures, supposedly in emulation of Swiss yodelling, but rather lacks the requisite lightness of touch. This movement should point to the way to the fairies in Midsummer Night’s Dream, but here they have rather leaden feel. The Finale is marked Allegro Vivace, and is a move back into dramatic, Mozartian territory with significant contrapuntal movement though the movement never goes where you expect. Mendelssohn’s increasing confidence is noticeable as the movement includes a clear second subject as well as a strict fugue on two simultaneous themes.

No. 11 also opens with a gentle slow introduction. This romantic section is over 3 minutes in length. It is followed by the Allegro Molto which has an extended classical development and indeed Beethoven was still alive when this poised, lively music was written. Again there are important contrapuntal moments and the violas figure significantly. The charming Scherzo is the second movement, this is a tuneful dance. Mendelssohn springs another surprise by including percussion parts. The melodic material quotes a Swiss folk song (‘Bin alben e warti Tachter gsi’) as well as a traditional Hebrew song. It is followed by an Adagio which is quite gentle, but here just sounds rather prosaic. Unusually, Mendelssohn follows this with a Minuet. This movement is rather dramatic and the performance seems to lack the requisite smile. The Finale, another Allegro Molto, makes a sober, dramatic finish, again showing off the orchestra at their best.

Johannes Goritzki (the musical director of the Neuss group), gives the music time to breathe and does not overtax his players. His tempi are all on the steady side. rather lacking that feeling of youthful liveliness. Ross Pople and the London Festival Orchestra knock 2'30 off no. 9 and 5 minutes off no. 11. Nicholas Ward on Naxos opts for slightly more sober tempos than Pople, but his is still 2 minutes faster than Goritzki in no. 11. Pople’s faster tempi never sound rushed and the London Festival Orchestra play with a nimbleness and delicacy that make the Neuss group sound rather over-deliberate, as if they were trying to give these youthful pieces more weight than necessary.

Goritzki’s sober approach to tempo also affects the music making. The German Chamber Academy are at their best in the more sombre moments, such as the striking Grave which opens no. 9. Their approach emphasises the frequent contrapuntal elements in the works, often at the expense of the more Romantic touches. What I miss is lightness of touch and a sense of fantasy. That is not to say that the playing is heavy-handed. But in these Scherzos, the fairies from the Octet and A Midsummer Night's Dream seem a long way away. With the London Festival Orchestra on Hyperion, the fairies never seem too far distant and even the more restrained movements are played with a lovely warmth.

The German Chamber Academy are a smallish group, numbering around 20 players. They play crisply in a stylish, if reserved, manner. Their passage work is sometimes a little untidy.

If you really want this pair of symphonies, then this recording is perfectly adequate. But if you are looking to explore Mendelssohn's charming symphonies whole, then you should also think about the Naxos recordings with the Northern Chamber Orchestra. These are available at super budget price. Their third volume contains symphonies 10, 11, 12 and 13 (good value at 78 minutes). Of course, this music responds immeasurably to being played on period instruments with their more transparent textures and a sense of opening up the space between the notes. But you have to pay full price for this.

Robert Hugill


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Symphony for Strings No.9 in C minor:
Grave - Allegro

Andante

Scherzo - Trio 'La Suisse'

Allegro Vivace

Symphony for Strings No.11 in F minor:
Adagio - Allegro molto

Scherzo 'Commodo - Swiss song'

Adagio

Menuetto - Allegro moderato

Allegro molto








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