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The Complete String Symphonies (1821–1823)
Munchner Rundfunkorchester/Henry Raudales (violin)
rec. 2006-2020, Studio 1, Bayerischer Rundfunk, Munchen.
BR KLASSIK 900337 [3 CDs: 208:19]

Little Mozart usually has the most publicity when it comes to musical childhood prodigies, but Felix Mendelssohn’s remarkable early productivity as a composer is not only represented by these excellent String Symphonies, but also by a total of around 60 works including songs, chamber music, organ pieces and four-part motets. The sinfonias or string symphonies heard here started out as a tradition of house concerts organised by Felix’s father at their Berlin apartment. His teacher, Carl Friederich Zelter, introduced the young Felix to the symphonies of Carl Philip Emanuel Bach, and the earliest pieces follow the three-movement model closely. As he became more experienced, further stylistic influences were introduced, and musical ideas expanded to embrace Haydn and the four-movement pattern that became typical for the fully developed symphony. Felix never published his early sinfonias, and the notebooks in which they were written only came to light in Berlin in 1950. As well as the String Symphonies we also have the 13-year old Felix’s first Violin Concerto. This has numerous echoes of J.S. Bach, including the key of D minor which probably relates to the harpsichord concerto BWV 1052 which Mendelssohn is known to have played and loved.

Superbly recorded as one might expect, these are excellent performances of the String Symphonies. The youthful freshness and vigour comes through in each work, the confidence in interpretation reflecting the young composer’s fearlessly bountiful creativity and swiftly developing craftsmanship. There is plenty of depth in the more profound music in some of the later symphonies, the atmosphere that opens the Eleventh Symphony for example being rich in exploratory mystery. The diversity of character, especially in the later symphonies, is delightfully observed. The Eleventh Symphony for instance is very wide-ranging in its nature, including folk-music and militaristic elements as well as a quite searching Adagio, and audience-pleasing sophistication and creative high-jinx in the counterpoint of the finale, all keenly examined and effectively communicated by Raudales and his players. String sound is clean and largely vibrato-free though not without warmth where this is demanded by the music. These are by no means reverential ‘preserved in aspic’ type performances, and with all of their refinement and detail they deliver lively and ‘living’ musical experiences that are a joy from start to finish.

There are of course numerous other recordings of Mendelssohn’s String Symphonies. Lev Markiz and the Amsterdam Sinfonietta on the BIS label are very good (review), and these recordings have also been made available on Brilliant Classics (review). These recordings are set in a more resonant acoustic and Markiz tends to make these sinfonias a touch weightier than Raudales. This is reflected in movement timings that are consistently longer, but Markiz still maintains plenty of rhythmic drive and energy when required. The difference is a mild extra layer of Teutonic reverence which may be preferable to some tastes, though having now heard the greater sense of fun from the Munich musicians my inclination is currently towards the latter. Thomas Fey and the Heidelberger Sinfoniker have both the String Symphonies and Mendelssohn’s further symphonic canon on 6 CDs on the Hänssler label (review), so if you want a one-stop spot for everything symphonic in this world then this might be a good place. Fey uses a leaner, non-vibrato type of sound, and is much more ‘in your face’ when it comes to the energy in the outer movements of these sinfonias. This has its own element of excitement, but this hard-driven approach can end up fatiguing to say the least.

Other recordings I’ve made some comparisons with include Nicholas Ward’s Naxos recordings on three volumes for the Naxos label, which are all excellent and more traditional in their use of vibrato in the string tone if that’s what you prefer. Roy Goodman with the Hanover Band can be had in a box set from the RCA label, and while these performances have a comparable ‘historically informed’ approach to performance when compared to the Munich strings the sound is a bit distant and generalised in comparison with the BR Klassik mix. The CPO label has an interesting set from Michi Gaigg and L’Orfeo Barochester, but you will have to like their use of a fortepiano as a kind of continuo. The addition of this twangy instrument to the strings seems unnecessary, not only turning, in particular, the early sinfonias at times into piano concertos in petto, but also giving the impression of their being set in a Wild West saloon bar. In other words, this set from Henry Raudales with the Munich Radio Orchestra rises above much of the competition in this field, and at every level of appreciation has much to recommend it.

Dominy Clements

Symphony No 1 in C major [8:56]
Symphony No 2 in D major [9:57]
Symphony No 3 in E minor [7:35]
Symphony No 4 in C minor [7:31]
Symphony No 5 in B-flat major [8:51]
Symphony No 6 in E-flat major [12:06]
Symphony No 7 in D minor [19:15]
Symphony No 8 in D major [22:29]
Symphony No 9 in C major [27:18]
Symphony No 10 in B minor [8:55]
Symphony No 11 in F major [35:20]
Symphony No 12 in G minor [14:32]
Symphoniesatz in C minor MWV N 14 [6:09]
Concerto for Violin and String Orchestra in D minor [19:25]

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