Mendelssohn Project, Vol. 2 = Sinfonias IV (c minor), V (Bb), and VI (Eb); Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Minor ‒ Viviane Hagner, violin/ dogma chamber orchestra/ Mikhail Gurewitch ‒ Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm multichannel SACD MDG 912 2211-6 (2+2+2); 53:58 (5/18/2021) ****
The young Mendelssohn in performances of youthful vigor.
Between 1821 and 1823, Mendelssohn penned twelve symphonies for strings alone. Not quite: in Sinfonia IX of 1823, the young master tosses in, rather incongruously, a Turkish drum kit—triangle, cymbals, and bass drum—in the service of a Swiss folk tune, a souvenir of a family trip to Swizerland. And there are thirteen symphonies, if you count an incomplete symphony in C minor (MWV N 14). These works, written when the composer was between the ages of 12 and 14, while arresting in both their precociousness and entertainment value, were devalued by Mendelssohn himself, who regarded them as no more than study pieces. Indeed, they are apprentice pieces, written under the careful eye of his composition teacher, Friedrich Zelter. If the end result is any indication, Zelter was a fine and exacting pedagogue because the symphonies exhibit the student’s constantly growing confidence in the realm of musical architecture, counterpoint, and instrumentation.
They also exhibit some of Zelter’s predilections and prejudices, including his enthusiasm for old music, including that of the Baroque masters, especially Bach. We can probably thank Zelter for Felix’s enthusiasm for Bach and thus for the 19th-century revival of the German master’s music. And Zelter’s love of another Bach, Carl Philip Emanuel, obviously rubbed off on Mendelssohn as well; the quicksilver mood (and harmonic shifts), as well as the austerely sensitive writing in the slow movements recall the string symphonies of J. S. Bach’s son. In fact, Mendelssohn’s works could be considered latter-day examplars of the empfindsamer Stil (sensitive style) that C. P. E. championed.
As the series progressed, however, the young composer became increasingly adventurous, expanding the three-movement structure that characterized the first six symphonies, and essaying the first examples of a Mendelssohnian specialty, the symphonic scherzo (Sinfonias IX and XI). But then Mendelssohn capped the series with his most sophisticated example of neo-Baroque in the fugal first movement of Sinfonia XII. The apprenticeship done, Mendelssohn was ready to write his first numbered symphony the following year; somewhat expectedly, it features an accomplished fugue in its equally accomplished sonata-form finale.
As I noted earlier, the first six string symphonies are in three movements. In the three under review here, the last two movements are played attaca, another Mendelssohnian hallmark that would characterize both the composer’s mature concertos and symphonies. This may be another trick he learned from C. P. E., who seemed to relish the collision of tempi between his symphonic movements.
Speaking of relish, the dogma chamber orchestra and their leader Mikhail Gurewich are obviously enjoying themselves as they course through Mendelssohn’s brilliant little essays. The fast movements zip along with vigor, but the musicians don’t neglect the tenderer emotions in Mendelssohn’s slow movements. The performances compare very favorably with the rival versions in my collection, while MDG’s surround sound is first-class: bold, with powerful bass resonance and a fine sense of the hall. In fact, you may find that you have to cut the volume if you start listening at your usual levels.
As a part of the “project,” this release includes another of Mendelssohn’s early works, the D-minor Violin Concerto, written when Mendelssohn was 13 and dedicated to his violin teacher, the sadly short-lived Eduard Rietz. It has many stylistic elements of the string symphonies, including the contrast of fiery outer movement, with lots of tremolo effects, followed by a dreamy slow movement, accentuated by yet another attaca entrée to the finale. German violinist Viviane Hagner’s elegant tone provides a proper foil to Mendelssohn’s often stentorian orchestral backdrop (stentorian, at least, in tutti passages). A satisfying performance.
The first installment in this series included the first three string symphonies and the A-minor Piano Concerto. It might have been a sound decision not to include one of the later and more complex symphonies in the series, but that choice makes for a rather short program, the only downside I can think of. Otherwise, this is a fine introduction to the incredibly talented young Mendelssohn.