Notes and Editorial Reviews
No. 1; No. 2,
Nos. 1–7; No. 8
(2 versions: winds/strings);
Wolfgang Sawallisch, cond;
Lev Markiz, cond;
Helen Donath (sop);
Rotraud Hausmann (sop);
Waldermar Kmentt (ten);
New Philharmonia O
BRILLIANT 93777 (7 CDs: 452:00)
Wolfgang Sawallisch had a distinguished conducting career prior to his recent retirement. This German-born conductor was, early in his career, assistant to conductor Igor Markevitch and late in his career became conductor laureate of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Between these postings, he was principal conductor of the Vienna Symphony and music director of the Bavarian State Opera. Russian conductor Lev Markiz studied chamber music with Maria Yudina and conducting with Kirill Kondrashin. He later became the first artistic director of the Amsterdam Sinfonietta, the only professional string orchestra in the Netherlands. The Amsterdam Sinfonietta consists of 22 string-players, occasionally augmented by wind and other instruments as needed.
This seven-disc set is a composite of the five standard symphonies, first released on vinyl discs in 1967, and the 13 early string symphonies produced for release between 1994 and 1996. I will address the five standard symphonies first, and then address the string symphonies.
In 32:3, I favorably reviewed Mendelssohn’s five symphonies for full orchestra performed by conductor Christoph Poppen and the German Radio Philharmonic Orchestra. In comparison, I called the combination of Claudio Abbado and the London Symphony Orchestra performing these five symphonies “unbeatable,” while retaining strong praise for Poppen and his forces. Well, Wolfgang Sawallisch supported by the New Philharmonia Orchestra challenges Abbado’s lead.
Mendelssohn’s symphonies were composed chronologically in the numerical order: 1, 5, 4, 2, 3. Listening in this order shows a distinctive maturity in Mendelssohn’s use of the musical palette. Prior to his Symphony No. 1, Mendelssohn composed 13 symphonies for strings—all providing rewarding listening even though they were composed by a young teenager. Having advanced in his teens, Mendelssohn at age 15 produced the Symphony No. 1 in this set. This work deserves more attention than it has been getting over the years because, while not up to its more famous younger (or older, depending on your choice of reference) siblings, it is an engaging work in the serious key of C-Minor. The Symphony No. 1, as well as the other four symphonies under Sawallisch’s baton, enables the listener to hear the detail of Mendelssohn’s exquisite inner part-writing and the detail of his remarkable ability at contrapuntal writing, as offered by the many fugatos that enter into the context of these works. Sawallisch’s beat is crisper than Abbado’s here and in many of the other four symphonies. Sawallisch does not observe the first movement repeat in the First Symphony, but does observe those repeats in the Third and Fourth Symphonies. The second movement of the “Reformation” Symphony is taken at a slightly relaxed tempo, which I don’t find to be to the music’s advantage. Similarly, I find the third movement of the “Italian” Symphony not sufficiently lilting under Sawallisch’s baton. But the last movement, the Saltarello, is the best in my memory.
The Symphony No. 2, “Lobgesang” or “Hymn of Praise,” is a symphonic cantata for orchestra, chorus, two sopranos, and one tenor, requiring about 65 minutes to perform. The vocal parts consume the final 40 minutes. This is an essentially ecumenical religious work. Almost all the tempos here are brisker than Abbado’s, shaving 10 minutes off his 75-minute time, and all for the better. The chorus and soloists are excellent, with Sawallisch keeping interest up by moving along smartly. Christoph Poppen also moves things along in this symphonic cantata, but Sawallisch and the Philharmonia forces produce a better sound. I have always regarded the “Scottish” Symphony as Mendelssohn’s most attractive symphony of the five. Here, both Sawallisch and Abbado excel, but at the end of the last movement, the triumphant A-Major coda is also Sawallisch’s triumph. He follows the preceding
with a correspondingly quiet A-Major entry, building up quickly to full volume. How effective!
Mendelssohn’s childhood musical genius transcended that of either Mozart or Schubert, as witnessed by the 13 string symphonies completed by age 15. Early on, in the third of these string symphonies, this mere child shows mastery of the art of contrapuntal writing. This, and other signs of precocious musical genius increased as the composer matured through each of the succeeding 10 string symphonies. The first six are imitative of Schubert and Beethoven, but in the Seventh String Symphony in D-Minor, Mendelssohn begins to express his individuality. The Eighth wavers in direction, looking both forward and back, but from the Ninth on, Mendelssohn moves forward at a galloping pace, with fugal movements and fugal passages proliferating—and what glorious fugal writing there is! The 11th String Symphony, in F-Major/F-Minor is my favorite. Mendelssohn augments the second movement with percussion at its conclusion, marked
), to produce a sound reminiscent of a Turkish Janissary band (
cymbals). The 13th String Symphony is incomplete, consisting of only a single movement.
Markiz and the Amsterdam Sinfonietta provide adequate performances, but compared to Kurt Masur’s competing traversal with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Markiz trails noticeably. Mazur uses a larger string ensemble, and, more significantly, he conducts with greater precision and clarity. Also, the Gewandhaus string sound is clean and silken, whereas the Amsterdam string sound is merely good. These differences are especially noticeable in the later string symphonies—from No. 8 through No 12.
Sawallisch’s three discs of Mendelssohn five symphonies are not available separately from Markiz’s four-disc traversal of Mendelssohn’s 13 string symphonies. But Sawallisch’s contribution to the recorded Mendelssohn literature is so significant, I strongly recommend this seven-disc set.
FANFARE: Burton Rothleder
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 1 in C minor, Op. 11 by Felix Mendelssohn
New Philharmonia Orchestra
Written: 1824; Germany
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