Comparison: Concerto Köln
was acclaimed as a musician of repute
during his lifetime. At a very young
age he was admired by people who heard
him play and became acquainted with
his compositions. When he was in Weimar
in the fall of 1822 he met Johann Wolfgang
von Goethe, the famous poet, and played
at his piano. Goethe was deeply impressed
and followed the young man's development
with great interest. The violinist Johann
Christian Lobe (1797 - 1881) was one
of the musicians involved in the first
performance of Mendelssohn's Piano quartet
in c minor, which took place at the
same time, and thought Mendelssohn was
the new Mozart. He said that Mendelssohn
showed more skills in composition than
Mozart at the same age.
The Symphonies for
strings are all from the same period
in Mendelssohn's life. They were composed
from 1821 to 1823 during a period when
he was a pupil of Carl Friedrich Zelter.
In two respects these works reflect
the teachings of Zelter. On the one
hand they contain many polyphonic and
fugal passages, which are a direct result
of Mendelssohn's thorough study of counterpoint
under the Zelter’s guidance. Throughout
his life Mendelssohn showed a strong
preference for polyphony, as the above-mentioned
Johann Christian Lobe later reported.
On the other hand the
symphonies, in particular the first
six, are modelled after those of Carl
Philipp Emanuel Bach, a composer Zelter
greatly admired. They are all written
in three movements, like those of the
Most of the later symphonies
are influenced by the classical symphonies
of Mozart and Haydn. They are usually
in four movements, with a slow introduction
to the first (fast) movement.
But Mendelssohn wasn't
just slavishly following the examples
of the great classical masters. This
is perhaps what Lobe was referring to
when he said that Mozart at the age
of 12 wasn't able to do much more than
making intelligent imitations of his
models, apparently in contrast to Mendelssohn.
He certainly did much more, and shows
a great deal of originality in these
The accustomed pattern
of the time was for the first fast movement
of a symphony to be immediately followed
by a slow movement. However, in the
Symphony No. 11, Mendelssohn inserts
a scherzo between the two, without omitting
the menuet after the adagio. This results
in a five-movement work.
Mendelssohn also uses
material he picked up during a visit
with his family to Switzerland in the
summer of 1822. Reminiscences of the
music he heard there can be found in
the scherzo from the 9th Symphony ('La
Suisse') and the above-mentioned scherzo
from Symphony No. 11 ('Schweizerlied').
In the latter he even adds triangle,
cymbals and timpani to the strings.
There are more experiments
with the scoring. In the 8th Symphony
the violins are silent in the adagio.
The andante of the Symphony no. 9 starts
with a passage for the violins which
are divided into four, whereas the fugal
middle section is scored for violas,
cellos and double basses only.
As I wrote earlier,
Mendelssohn's reputation remained largely
intact during his life. It was after
his death that he became more controversial.
That had partly to do with a growing
anti-Semitism; Richard Wagner was one
of those who contributed to the undermining
of Mendelssohn's standing as one of
Germany's most important composers and
conductors of the 19th century. But
there was also a tendency to disdain
his music as cheap and sentimental.
Hans von Bülow
(1830 - 1894), the influential German
conductor, who in his youth received
piano lessons from Mendelssohn, wrote
about the way Mendelssohn wanted his
music to be performed. The composer
shunned the sentimental approach. He
resisted the tendency to use rubato
too frequently, and to play ritardandi
where they were not prescribed. Some
performers, wanting to avoid any sentimentality,
tried to do so by rushing the music.
Mendelssohn complained about that habit,
but at the same time he frequently asked
his pupils to play faster. According
to Von Bülow "his pieces are generally
taken far too slowly by today's conductors".
I don't know how today's
symphony orchestras are playing Mendelssohn's
orchestral works, but in the present
recording by The Hanover Band as well
as in the recording of Concerto Köln,
which I used as comparison, the remarks
by Von Bülow are taken seriously.
The tempi in both recordings
are pretty speedy, and there is no trace
of sentimentality in either of them.
The approach is rather classical, which
is reinforced by the use of period instruments.
As much as I like both
versions I slightly prefer Concerto
Köln's interpretation. First of
all, the sound of the Hanover Band is
bigger, more 'symphonic' than Concerto
Köln's, which is more intimate.
This intimacy not only does more justice
to the character of these works, but
is also more historically justified,
as most of them were played in the Mendelssohn
home during the Sunday afternoon concerts.
I don't know whether
the number of players involved is different,
since the present reissue doesn't give
any details about the size of the orchestra.
But the acoustical circumstances undoubtedly
contribute considerably to the impression
that the orchestra is pretty large.
I find the amount of reverberation in
this recording not very pleasant. And
in comparison to Concerto Köln
the Hanover Band's playing is less polished
and refined, and tends to be a little
In his notes regarding
the performance practice Concerto Köln's
leader Werner Ehrhardt mentions the
fact that composers of the early 19th
century described vibrato as 'pityful
whining', which should only be used
in passages of violent agitation or
great passion. In that light it is a
little disappointing that the Hanover
Band doesn't consistently follow that
line. This hampered my enjoyment of
the andante in the 9th Symphony, which
starts with four independent violin
Although both orchestras
prefer pretty fast tempi, Concerto Köln
is the fastest most of the time. To
some extent this may be a matter of
personal preference, but not in the
case of the menuetto of Symphony No.
8. Concerto Köln, on the basis
of the metronome markings, interprets
this movement as a scherzo, which was
faster than the menuet. As a result
the menuet is about twice as fast as
in the recording by the Hanover Band.
In one way these recordings
are complementary: the Hanover Band
performs this 8th Symphony with additional
winds. In this version the Symphony
comes closer to the later symphonies
by Mendelssohn, which he composed for
full symphony orchestra. There is a
nice balance between the strings and
the winds here.
In spite of my criticisms,
this set gives a pretty good impression
of the many qualities of these works
by the young Mendelssohn. It is a pity
there are no liner notes in English.
Johan van Veen