MENDELSSOHN-BARTHOLDY(1809–1847) The Complete String Symphonies(1821–1823):
No. 1 in C major [11:24]; No. 2 in D major [10:55]; No.
3 in E minor [8:38]; No. 4 in C minor [8:57]; No. 5 in
B flat major [11:20]; No. 6 in E flat major [12:26];
No. 7 in D minor [23:58]; No. 8 in D major (version for
strings) [30:29]; No. 9 in C major [29:04]; No. 10 in
B minor [10:04]; No. 11 in F major [38:12]; No. 12 in
G minor [21:28]; No. 13 in C minor [7:22]; No. 8 in D
major (version with winds) [29:28]
rec. August 1993 (2, 3, 9, 10); April 1994 (13); July 1994
(1, 5, 6, 7, 12); May 1995 (4); July 1995 (11); October
1995 (8), Concertgebouw, Haarlem, Holland; March 1996 (No.
8 with winds), Waalse Kerk, Amsterdam, Holland BIS BIS-SACD-1738 [4:15:55]
me start with a technical explanation. Readers may wonder
if there isn’t something wrong in the header. All this
music should occupy 4 CDs, shouldn’t it? Of course, the
maximum playing time of a CD is 80 minutes, or maybe a
few seconds more than that. But this is a SACD, which has
much storage capacity, since there is normally a surround
mix and a stereo mix. In this case there is no surround
mix, so the entire capacity can be used for the stereo
content – and thus so much more playing time can be housed
(note that these recordings were originally released on
There is only one catch: so-called Hybrid-SACDs can be
played on any CD player, since they contain a CD layer.
To play back the present disc one needs an SACD player.
I first found out this a little over a year ago when I
found a box containing Bach’s complete organ works at an
incredibly low price. More than 20 hours’ playing time
on 5 SACDs for the price of 2! I couldn’t resist it of
course and they were superb. If I had bought Hans Fagius’s
complete set on conventional CDs (18 discs) I would have
paid so much more that it would have been more profitable
to buy this SACD box and a SACD player.
is short of a miracle of course. Another miracle is the
music on this Mendelssohn disc, which unbelievably was
composed during a two-year-period when he was between 12
and 14 years of age. Of course we know of other precocious
composers: Mozart for one, but as Stig Jacobsson points
out in his notes, not even he was so assured and mature
at the same age. That he was enormously proficient and
knew the craft is without doubt but he was still deeply
indebted to his predecessors, not least J.C. Bach. To be
honest Mendelssohn also shows influences from Haydn and
Mozart, even Bach and Handel – he was still a student with
Carl Zelter at the time so these symphonies could be seen
as apprentice work – but when listening to them chronologically
one can hear how he very quickly finds a voice all of his
own and in the later works there is no doubt that here
is a personal composer, enormously gifted, writing in an
idiom that has its roots in the previous era but distilled
and refined in his own laboratory.
break comes between the symphonies 7 and 8. The first seven
were all composed in 1821 and the eighth is dated 27 November
1822 while the remaining ones were completed in March,
May, July and September. The thirteenth was never completed.
What we have here is the first movement, which was completed
in December 1823 but then he abandoned the project and
started working on what was to become his first numbered
symphony, the one in C minor Op. 11 from 1824. Of String
Symphony No. 10 only a first movement remains and we don’t
know anything about the other movements. Felix Mendelssohn
himself after some time regarded these symphonies ‘with
increasing contempt’ and hadn’t it been for his sister
Fanny they would probably have been weeded out. It is possible
that he realized that there was too many echoes of the
Haydn, Mozart ed all and too little Mendelssohn.
Now, almost 200 years later, we have to be grateful that
they have been preserved since they give us insight in
his development during these years but, even more important,
they also have an intrinsic value musical creations of
their own and few listeners hearing them for the first
time would, I think, believe that these are works by a
boy in his earliest teens, even younger than that.
first six string symphonies are all fairly short, the longest
of them just over twelve minutes. Maybe Sinfonietta would
be a more appropriate word for them. They are in three
movements with an allegro first movement and an allegro
or presto finale with an andante in the middle. The one
that stands out is No. 4 in C minor, which has a slow introduction,
marked Grave – something that became the norm in
his full-length later works, inspired no doubt by Joseph
Haydn’s late symphonies. No. 6 also has a minuet as middle
movement, very Viennese in fact.
a young boy it is remarkable that not only are six of the
symphonies in minor keys but also that they are far from
unconcerned. The outer movements are lively and vital but
also often agitated and dramatic and there are dark strands
in many of them. The slow movement of No. 1 has a brooding
quality and the whirling finale is energetic – but also
is also obvious is his unconventional approach. There are
rhythmical irregularities in many places - for example
No. 1 – and the andante of No. 4 is hypnotically repetitive,
while the finale of No. 5 has sudden stops.
No. 7 the compositions become more large-scale with four
movements – even five in No. 11 – and the playing time
exceeds twenty minutes; No. 8 and 9 are around 30 minutes
and No. 11 no less than 38! The musical contents and the
development of it is also on a higher level and while the
vitality of the music is just as uplifting as in the earlier
works the serious elements are also even deeper in feeling.
Most apparent of all is how skilled he is in counterpoint.
As early as in No. 4 the finale is a fugal construction
and in No. 7 and No. 8 the finales are fully developed
fugues and so is the allegro molto of No. 11. This
symphony is also interesting for its scherzo, a Swiss folk-song,
where he also adds percussion: tambourine, triangle and
timpani. In the first movement of the last of the complete
symphonies, the three movement No. 12, he even, after the
slow introduction, revels in a double fugue a la Bach,
which of course reminds us that a decade later Mendelssohn
was the one who more or less started the Bach revival.
a ‘filler’ we get No. 8 in his transcription for full orchestra
which, miraculously was completed only three days after
the string version. This was his first attempt at using
the complete orchestral pallet and one marvels at the surefootedness.
Especially the slow movement is colourful in the way that
points forward to his mature symphonies.
is music by a twelve-to-fourteen-year-old these symphonies
are far from the immature apprentice works that the composer
himself obviously regarded them as, and everyone who loves
Mendelssohn or music of the period in general or just music
for string orchestra should give it a try. The performances
of the virtuoso Amsterdam Sinfonietta are both vital and
sensitive and the sound is up to BIS’s normal high standards:
well defined, well integrated, believable acoustics and
the dynamics well caught. My only comparisons are the last
four symphonies that constitute volume 3 of the Naxos set,
recorded about the same time as the BIS set. Nicholas Ward
and the Northern Chamber Orchestra play very well indeed,
tempos and some other details may differ but those are
also highly attractive readings. For sheer virtuosity and
homogeneity of the playing I would place the Amsterdam
Sinfonietta a notch above. The price is about the same
but it is no doubt convenient to have all the symphonies
on one disc and a further plus with the BIS set is the
inclusion of the orchestral version of No. 8. But remember:
You need an SACD player to listen to the disc!
Founding Editor Rob Barnett Senior Editor
John Quinn Seen & Heard Editor Emeritus Bill Kenny Editor in Chief
Vacant MusicWeb Webmaster
David Barker MusicWeb Founder Len Mullenger
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