FELIX MENDELSSOHN BARTHOLDY: Symphonies Nos. 1 Op. 11 & No. 5 Op. 107 “Reformation” – Musikkollegium Winterthur/ Thomas Zehetmair – MD&G Scene multichannel (2+2+2) SACD MDG 901 1814-6, 58:06 [Distr. by E1] ****:
The Musikkolegium Winterthus (which has been going since 1629) is embarked on recording all of Mendelssohn’s symphonies, and the Swiss orchestra sounds exceptional on this latest release of the set. Part of the high marks for this release is the excellent surround sound provided by MD&G’s engineers, even compatible with a 2+2+2 speaker setup, if you want to go to the trouble.
The more famous of the two symphonies, the “Reformation,” was intended by the composer to be finished by January 1830 in honor of the landmark of Lutheranism, the 300th anniversary of the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession. But due to illness Mendelssohn didn’t complete the work for full orchestra in time and when he did it was too late for the commission to recognize it for the celebrations. Some writers have surmised that antisemitism might have been a factor here also. He finally had a performance in Berlin in 1832, but the symphony was not performed again until more than 20 years after his death.
The aesthetic behind the Reformation Symphony came from the deep influence of A. B. Marx, a close friend of Mendelssohn. Marx argued that all great works of music were based on a fundamental idea which could be substantially expressed in words. An example was Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory, where opposed musical themes signified the French and British armies. At the premiere of the symphony, a critic had commented with disdain on the idea, saying that we shouldn’t read things into a piece that are entirely foreign to it. However, if we define “program music” broadly, it could be said that the symphony is one of the finest examples of that form from the 19th century.
There is a great deal of contrapuntal work in the symphony, sometimes almost robbing the music of the imaginative vitality common to Mendelssohn. This was tied in with the composer’s re-discovery and promulgation of J.S. Bach. Mendelssohn actually reverted to more Baroque compositional techniques in the Reformation Symphony. This was of course modified by a lightness of touch in much of his music, heard in the second movement of the Reformation. Its fourth movement is almost as long as the ten-minute opening Andante-Allegro, and it emphasize an instrumental climactic version of the great Lutheran choral we know as “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” The transparency of writing which we associate with Mendelssohn, and which is in evidence in this symphony, makes it somehow more appropriate for a small orchestra such as the Winterthur musicians.
There are certainly plenty of other fine recorded versions of the Reformation, including Toscanini (mono), von Dohnanyi, Charles Munch (available on a Living Stereo SACD), Kurt Masur, and Mitropoulos. Besides the Munch, there are also SACDs with Andrew Litton and the Bergen Philharmonic plus Ola Rudner and the Wurttemberg Philharmonic. But I think the smaller sound and increased subtleties of this hi-res surround release could make it an alternative Fifth in many collections.
Mendelssohn’s First Symphony is clearly the accessory here. He wrote it when he was only 15 years old, and it was performed at a private gathering to honor his sister Fanny’s 19th birthday. In spite of this it is a half-hour length and includes timpani. A chamber arrangement of it is also available, for piano duet, violin and cello.