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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



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Felix 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]
Amsterdam Sinfonietta/Lev Markiz
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]
Experience Classicsonline

Let 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 CD: BISCD938-40).

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.
 
This 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.
 
The 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.
 
The 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.
 
For 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 with shadows.
 
What 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.
 
From 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.
 
As 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.
 
It 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!
 
Göran Forsling
 

 


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