MENDELSSOHN: Symphony No. 4, Op. 90, “Italian”; Symphony No. 5, Op. 107, “Reformation Symphony” – Württembergische Philharmonie Reutlingen / Ola Rudner – Ars Produktion multichannel SACD ARS 38 111, 64:44 [Distr. by Qualiton] ****:
Ho-hum. Another recording of Mendelssohn’s Fourth and Fifth Symphonies. But wait just a minute—this is a recording with a difference. What we have here are Mendelssohn’s first thoughts on these works, and the differences are interesting and instructive even if you won’t return to this disc as often as to a favorite recording of the final versions. A composer’s first take on a familiar work can be disappointing. I was excited to get the first version of Tchaikovsky’s Little Russian Symphony on a Chandos recording with Geoffrey Simon, who specializes in such out-of-the-way fare—until I actually heard it. Even more so the recent recording of the first version of Bruckner’s Fourth from Kent Nagano. What a letdown! The grand melodies, the grand climaxes, the scintillating use of the brass are nowhere to be found—or to be found only like the jumbled-up pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, in combinations and locations that make no sense. Bruckner’s timing, and everything else for that matter, is entirely off.
But in the case of Mendelssohn. . . . We often think of Mendelssohn as so skillful a composer that he always got it right the first time, even when his inspirations were less than first-rate. I’ve even heard one commentator (Christopher Hogwood, I think it was) say that Mendelssohn solved so many compositional problems so seemingly effortlessly that there appears to be no second-guessing him. Yet the truth of the matter is that the composer was never satisfying with his popular Italian Symphony and went to his grave still wishing to revise it. So it’s fascinating to hear Mendelssohn groping toward a version he could live with. The version recorded here is based on the original version heard at the London premiere in 1833. Despite the acclaim of the first audiences, he never came up with a definitive version and so never authorized its publication. Yet the version of the piece we hear today seems just about perfect in terms of structuring and, most of all, orchestration. Indeed, that introductory pizzicato chord in the strings and those repeated chords in the winds that seem to capture the fresh-air beauties of a new landscape so perfectly are all there in the first version; if there’s a jot of difference between this version of the first movement and the usual performing version, I’m not aware of it. It’s in later movements that the differences make themselves known.
The second movement, supposedly portraying some nocturnal procession, is more economical in the version usually heard today, and that’s the case in the scintillating finale, a tarantella that just doesn’t know when to end, or even how to get to the ending, in the 1833 version of the score. Even the scherzo—one of Mendelssohn’s slow, intermezzo-like scherzi—doesn’t have the seamless lilt and flow that it has in the version we usually hear. The 1833 version halts and stutters along in a way that’s probably only obvious by comparison with its later incarnation. Even the scherzo cries out for pruning, with lots of superfluous echoing calls in the brass that the composer deleted from the usually heard version. If Mendelssohn had been content with the first version of this symphony, we might have been too. But hearing it in comparison to the version we’ve come to know and love is to hear a master self-editor at work.
Mendelssohn’s Reformation is heard much less frequently in concert, and some have opined it’s only heard at all thanks to the recording industry. Apparently, it fared no better with early audiences, and Mendelssohn himself came to describe it as “a fat, bristly animal; an effective cure for a weak stomach.” He forbade publication of the work; it first appeared in print twenty years after his death.
The work was intended to celebrate the tercentenary of the Augsburg Confession, which reformers Martin Luther and Philipp Melancthon presented to Emperor Charles V in 1530. But given Mendelssohn’s busy schedule, the symphony wasn’t completed till 1832, by which time the composer had replaced the coda of the last movement with a more succinct and telling version. As far as I can tell, this is the chief if not the only difference between the 1832 and 1830 versions. Ola Rudner plays the 1830 version of the finale, which, instead of finishing with a declamatory reiteration of Luther’s Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott over brass fanfares, ends with nothing very memorable at all. Needless to say, this doesn’t give a listener as much to mull over as the 1833 version of the Fourth Symphony, but it’s interesting to hear again how Mendelssohn improved on his uninspired first thoughts.
These performances by Rudner and the Württembergische Philharmonie Reutlingen—of which he’s chief conductor—are very good. They’re spirited, well-played, informed with the sense of discovery, even if the discovery is of less effective earlier versions of established classics. I think students and lovers of Mendelssohn will share that sense of discovery. Adding to the pleasure, Ars Produktion’s SACD recording is impressive in every regard: deep, sweepingly wide, with plenty of impact and detail.
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