FELIX MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
THE COMPLETE STRING SYMPHONIES
Symphony No. 1 in C major
Symphony No. 2 in D major
Symphony No. 3 in E minor
Symphony No. 4 in C minor
Symphony No. 5 in B Flat major
Symphony No. 6 in E Flat major
Symphony No. 10 in B minor [Disc 1]Symphony No. 7 in D minor
Symphony No. 8 in D major (version with winds)
Symphony No. 12 in G minor [Disc 2]
Symphony No. 9 in C major
Symphony No. 11 in F major
Symphony No. 13
“Sinfoniesatz” in C minor [Disc 3]
THE HANOVER BAND conducted by ROY GOODMAN
performing on original instruments
RCA Victor Red Seal (BMG Classics) 09026 68069-2
3 discs [73’02” + 74’49” + 77’16”] full-price (3 CDs for the price of 2)*
by Chia Han-Leon
I smiled when I started playing the first disc, for the youthful vigour, the sunshine and the simple springing energy of life itself that seems to ceaselessly flow from Mendelssohn. And why not? Felix composed these marvellous works of art before he even reached the ripe old age of fourteen!
Left: Mendelssohn aged 12, painted by Karl Begas.
In these symphonies, one can easily discern the lessons he learnt from studying the masters of the Baroque and the Classical periods. If there is one common thing he has derived from these, it is the busy and exciting string writing so characteristic of Mendelssohn, as in the opening of the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Lost for nearly 130 years and only relatively recently discovered in 1950, the sparkling Mendelssohn String Symphonies are works that offer an amazing treasure chest of delights, not in any way inferior to the “mature” symphonies, nor the Classical models Mendelssohn so loved.
The first six Symphonies are deliciously bite-sized, each lasting around 10 minutes, arguing their scintilating way through a fertile field of merry fast movements and atmospheric, thoughtful andantes. String Symphony No. 1, for example, starts off with the skittering violin passages and busy bass figures in the best traditions. The slow movement is meditative and thoughtful with a playful middle section, again displaying the highly gifted mind of the prolific teenaged composer.
The most startlingly beautiful example of this is the heavenly Andante of String Symphony No.4. Surely he who basks in such radiant beauty of inspiration must find time to appreciate this “caught-in-the-middle” composer, neither truly Classical, nor completely Romantic.
What amazes me still is that this is the work of a 12-year-old. One of the most delightful surprises in the earlier of these Symphonies is the direction by Roy Goodman from the fortepiano (not a piano, but an authentic fortepiano). Heard to great effect in many of the fast movements such as the finale of the First String Symphony, its harp-like voice is not only an added tone colour in contrast to the bowed strings, but infuses a sparkling liveliness in the music. And “sparkling” too is a word that adequately captures the cascading opening figures of the Fifth String Symphony: ha – what delight! Listen to the series of descending motifs and see if you can resist smiling at its combined fun, mirth and cheer.
As we progress to the second disc, the mature Mendelssohn (right) starts to show up more. The opening of the Seventh, in D minor, is confidently scored, though also touched by the playful spirit in its second subject. As the movement develops, it is easy to see again the lessons learnt from Mozart, though in its employment Mendelssohn is completely original. Even in String Symphony No.12, with its obvious homage paid to Mozart’s own G minor 40th Symphony, is originally and approvingly done with a strong dose of potent Baroque fugues.
For this recording of Symphony No.8, Goodman has – happily – chosen the version scored for an orchestra with winds and timpani. This, suggests the conductor, should be considered the composer’s first orchestral symphony. Having compared it with the string version, I must confess a preference for this version. Not only is it satisfyingly more colourful in tone colour, but the trills from the woodwind are strategically and most wonderfully placed to create exciting and stirring effects, as in the first movement. After an intimately scored chamber-sized Adagio and a Mozartian menuet, the Symphony ends with a driving and energetic finale, quite worthy of Beethoven.
I find it useless to go on to the other disc of String Symphonies as this is music that only needs to be heard to be appreciated. Suffice to say each is full of surprises – No.11 involves drums, triangles and cymbals!
The Hanover Band (left), as I have indicated, play with great finesse and spirit, laughing with pleasure the cheerful, chirping, moving architecture that is the Classical symphony, while lingering beautifully on the soft phrases of the tender slow movements. Goodman’s direction is clean and inspiriting, his notes interesting and honest, very much worth reading. The RCA recording is mildly reverberating without being too boomy, catching the string detail well but allowing the music to radiate brilliantly in the large acoustic. The symphonies with wind or percussion display their unique colours with great presence. The cool image of Mendelssohn on the cover is reproduced on the discs in three different colour schemes!
I continue to be amazed. Even more surprising than Mendelssohn’s phenomenal gifts of composition, literary and playing skill; more inspiring than his near single-handed resurrection of Bach’s great St. Matthew Passion; more amazing than his having completed these 13 string symphonies by the age of 14 – is the sheer maturity of feeling and passion evoked in some of the slow movements of these Symphonies, for one so young of age. Where were we when we were 14? May the art of Felix Mendelssohn live long and delight many!
This disc is available at, or can be ordered from Tower (Pacific Plaza), Sing Music (Raffles City), Borders (Wheelock Place) and HMV (The Heeren).
*Although the set has been advertised as priced as 2 full-priced CDs, the writer cannot be certain that it will be priced as such in your store or country. Sometimes, local distributors like to bluff…
Chia Han-Leon survives on either coffee or Nescafe at NUS. If he could afford it, he would have Hawaiian coffee more often.
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