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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
String Symphonies - Volume 3
String Symphony No 8 in D major (1822) [29:26]
Che voi, mio cor?, Scena for alto and string orchestra (1824) [8:13]
String Symphony No 9 in C major (1823) [31:00]
Margot Oitzinger (alto), L’Orfeo Barockorchester / Michi Gaigg
rec. 2017, Schlossmuseum, Linz, Austria
Sung text and translation included
CPO 555 202-2 [68:58]

I was listening last night (not for the first time this year) to Hannu Lintu’s definitive Ondine account of Lutoslawski’s Fourth Symphony; it’s a work which reveals more on every hearing, a summative masterpiece which could only have emerged at the end of a life. And now I’m considering Mendelssohn’s equally remarkable string symphonies, the artefacts of a teenager; in similar vein, one cannot help but wonder what, in the way of ‘experience’ might one reasonably expect from the two big works on this new CPO disc, given that they were composed at the outset of a life seemingly filled with privilege and promise (albeit one ultimately curtailed prematurely). Lutoslawski compressed seventy-eight years of tumultuous existence into his final masterpiece, while Mendelssohn had not even hit the Sturm und Drang years of adolescence. How is it even possible that these symphonies, the most substantial examples of his accepted juvenilia, teem with so much vibrant life, and reflect such extremes of light and shade?

This is the third volume of a series I have been following avidly since the first disc (CPO 777 942-2, containing the first six string symphonies) arrived in November 2015. Nos 7, 10 and 12 duly followed with the Symphonic Movement (aka String Symphony No 13) on CPO 555 047-2 in October 2017. Presumably a final volume will appear in due course and include No 11 in F, cast in five movements and the longest of the sequence, alongside one or two appropriate fillers, a role the scene Che voi, mio cor? admirably fills on the present issue. Volume 1 was a winner from the first note; crisp, driven rhythms played by a sparky ensemble underpinned by a rich fortepiano. Mendelssohn’s brief movements seem to owe much to the stylings of one Carl Philip Emanuel Bach, although they are soused in the youthful exuberance of an apparently happy prodigy and are here brought to vivid life in Michi Gaigg’s unfailingly sunny readings. The present third volume has more in common with its direct predecessor; on that second instalment the String Symphony No 7, cast in four movements convinces more than the relatively ponderous No 12, although the pungent sound of Gaigg’s splendid band, L’Orfeo Barockorchester is a constant delight. On the new disc both String Symphonies No 8 and No 9 are yet more substantial; although frankly speaking in terms of refinement and originality Mendelssohn would progress enormously in the two years that spanned the composition of these works and his immortal Octet, Op 20.

The dark, Bachian Adagio e Grave introduction to the D major Symphony no 8 initially seems rather bare in this account, especially when compared to Fey’s Heidelberg account (of which more later) but the monothematic Allegro when it arrives is unambiguously classical and lively though the playing is, I’m not sure it necessarily benefits from the application of pronounced period style in this case. However, direct comparison with Fey is impossible, since he employs Mendelssohn’s lesser-known expansion (which includes winds and timpani). There is more expressivity in the concentrated music of the two briefer central movements; both yield stylish playing and autumnal colourations from Gaigg’s principals. The group’s three solo violas in the Adagio convey a melancholy and mystery which quite belie the age of the composer; they project a depth which transcends either infantile mimickry or more sophisticated forms of social learning. The shaping at the outset of the third movement minuet is unequivocally Haydnesque, but the Trio comes across as somewhat experimental. L’Orfeo here convey an oddly modern sound for a period band. Technically speaking the Mozartean Allegro Molto finale offers a feast of imaginative counterpoint which by now begins to point towards the acknowledged masterpieces of Mendelssohn’s early maturity. The detail and clarity of Gaigg’s reading is most satisfying. The fugal entries from 5:00 incorporate some delicious pointing from the fortepiano. Perhaps it goes on a bit (hardly an original criticism of the fledgling Mendelssohn), but its impetuous conclusion is clinically concise. Fey’s reading of the whole symphony with what is basically a full orchestra is architecturally very similar, albeit with some daring articulation, although the expansion produces a sound which counter-intuitively actually seems lighter. I really wouldn’t wish to be without either Fey or Gaigg in this youthful, irresistible repertoire. Both will make you smile.

A direct comparison is possible in the C major Symphony No 9. L’Orfeo’s Grave intro is deliciously broad with distinctive fortepiano colourings and melts into a superbly fluent, busy Allegro moderato which is thrilling, with a fuller sound which quite belies the size of the group (seventeen players including fortepiano are listed, more feature in the photograph on the back of the booklet). This movement marks a telling advance on its equivalent in the preceding symphony. The note correctly identifies the richer inner sound (the violas are split), the counterpoint at once seems more sophisticated and confident. Its Alpine freshness seems to owe something to Felix’s extended holiday in Switzerland with his family in the second half of 1822. The Poco Adagio is effectively undiluted chamber music featuring combinations of three violins, two violas and cello supported by continuo-like accompaniment from the fortepiano. This music touches the profound; the intimacy of the playing in this reading is a delight. The conventional opening of the Scherzo gives way to a slow central section which features a lilting, rustic Swiss folksong. This is further authenticated by a fortepiano sound which seems to project the flavour of a zither (or even a cimbalom). And the keyboard further makes its presence felt in the Allegro molto section of the finale, a movement whose novelties and complexities are described in some detail in the (dubiously translated – as is often the case with CPO) booklet. This is a most invigorating reading of a movement that can drag in less committed hands, although again I find Fey’s account of this finale perhaps even more riveting.

It is well known that the twelve (or thirteen) String Symphonies were conceived for the purposes of the Mendelssohn family’s fortnightly Sunday matinees which his father Abraham facilitated for the initial dissemination of his son’s compositional experiments as well as providing opportunities for his daughter Fanny’s nascent career as a pianist. Christian Moritz-Bauer’s note speculates that the dramatic scena, Che voi, mio cor? was also conceived with these events in mind. Bauer asserts that Mendelssohn modelled this rarely performed work upon Beethoven’s concert aria Ah! Perfido, Op 65, written roughly 25 years earlier. Both works certainly share the same broad structure of recitative – cavatinacabaletto, while the Odi et Amo ‘tortured heart’ text similarly derives from the writings of Pietro Metastasio whose words feature in the Beethoven. The Austrian alto Margot Oitzinger has flawless Italian while her darkly voiced, reined-in expressivity is ideally suited to the major/minor ambiguities of this amiable curiosity. Guigg leads her players in tactfully matched, deftly coloured accompaniment. The CPO sound (as it is throughout this disc, and its two predecessors) is warm, spacious and superbly balanced. Of the three works in this volume, I would argue that it is only in the anodyne naivety of Mendelssohn’s setting of Metastasio’s histrionic text that an innocent listener might identify a student composer. Yet one would never suspect that its creator was barely even a teenager.

So a hearty welcome from this reviewer for the latest instalment of Michi Gaigg’s Mendelssohn. While there are plenty of complete sets of the String Symphonies, for me at least three clearly stand out: easily my favourite modern instrument recording is that by Lev Markiz and the Amsterdam Sinfonietta on BIS (later licensed to Brilliant Classics - review), clean and dramatic accounts in de-luxe BIS sound. On Hänssler Classics Fey’s cycle with the Heidelberger Sinfoniker melds modern instruments, period style and real interpretive flair (it was recently made available with Mendelssohn’s 5 mature symphonies in an affordable 6 CD set - review). However, hearing the present disc reinforces my suspicions that Gaigg’s ongoing CPO series will become the benchmark period instrument recording.

Richard Hanlon