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Symphonies for strings - on period instruments

CD 1
Symphony No. 7 in d minor [21:37]
Symphony No. 8 in D (version with winds) [30:08]
Symphony No. 12 in g minor [22:27]
CD 2
Symphony No. 9 in c minor [28:46]
Symphony No. 11 in F [40:35]
The Hanover Band/Roy Goodman
Recorded in 1992 and 1993. DDD
RCA BMG 74321 987132 [74:13 + 69:22]

Comparison: Concerto Köln (Teldec)

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy 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 Zelterís 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 'Hamburg' Bach.

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 symphonies.

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 harsh.

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 parts.

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

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