FELIX MENDELSSOHN (1809 – 1847): Symphonies Nos. 1 – 5—Karina Gauvin (soprano – Symphony No. 2), Regula Mühlemann (soprano – Symphony No. 2), Daniel Behle (tenor – Symphony No. 2); RIAS Kammerchor (Symphony No. 2); Chamber Orchestra of Europe; Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ in Grande salle Pierre Boulez, Philharmonie, Paris, France, 20 – 22 February 2016; Deutsche Grammophon 479 7337; 3 CDs, 200:10; Available from Amazon (USA), fnac (France), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]
‘Hier stehe ich: ich kann nicht anders.’ With these seven words or a sentiment of similar brevity, one man changed the course of history in ways that continue to enrich, embolden, and embitter mankind. The publication in 1517 of Disputatio pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum, commonly known in English as the Ninety-Five Theses, ignited a conflagration of religious dissent that singed Europe and dispersed its smoke over every square millimeter of the globe. At the center of the inferno, the man whose thinking emitted the fateful sparks was Martin Luther, an Augustinian theologian whose questioning of the ethics of Catholic sales of indulgences is now believed by scholars to have been intended to provoke contemplation and quiet reform rather than outright philosophical revolution. In addition to the enduring, still-evolving ramifications of his theological paradigm shift, Luther exerted an influence of virtually incalculable significance on human culture. Without Luther’s pioneering translation of Biblical texts into the German vernacular and composition of hymns and chorales, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Passions, Georg Friedrich Händel’s Messiah, Johannes Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem, and countless other seminal works of art might never have emerged from the minds of their creators.
Three hundred years after Luther’s issuance of the Ninety-Five Thesis, the eight-year-old scion of a well-respected German Jewish family of intellectuals was impressing his society with a rapidly-developing musical precocity that rivaled that of Europe’s greatest Wunderkind, Mozart. Born in the independent city of Hamburg on 3 February 1809, nine days before another of the Nineteenth Century’s preeminent geniuses, Abraham Lincoln, was born on the opposite shore of the Atlantic, Felix Mendelssohn benefited from as normal a childhood as a prodigy could expect. Without the necessity of earning a living via musical means, Mendelssohn’s father did not seek to profit from his son’s boyhood feats of musical prowess as Mozart’s had done a half-century earlier. Like Haydn, Mozart, and Brahms, Mendelssohn the composer was a master of form whose work expanded the creative possibilities of building new musical structures upon firmly-established foundations. Also like Mozart, Mendelssohn was destined for a brief life, but the breadth and significance of his accomplishments are remarkable—and in no genre more so than in the symphony.
Complemented by the dozen string symphonies composed during his adolescence, Mendelssohn’s five symphonies—or, as is now the preferred designation, his four symphonies and symphonic cantata—are cornerstones of German Romanticism, scores in which the stylistic advancements of the Eighteenth Century were propelled into the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Recorded in sound of astonishing clarity during performances in the Grande salle Pierre Boulez of Paris’s much-discussed Philharmonie, Deutsche Grammophon’s new accounts of Mendelssohn’s Symphonies featuring the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under the baton of Yannick Nézet-Séguin sound as novel as they must have done during their composer’s lifetime. ‘Hier stehe ich,’ Mendelssohn said in these innovative scores, but what more might his thwarted genius have achieved?
In the opening Allegro di molto movement of Symphony No. 1 in C minor (Opus 11 / MWV N 13), the Québécois Nézet-Séguin and his COE colleagues institute tempi, textures, and balances among sections of the orchestra that uncannily highlight the Classical accents of Mendelssohn’s musical language whilst also speaking his ardently Romantic dialect with absolute fluency. One of the most brilliant facets of Nézet-Séguin’s artistry is his ability to simultaneously emphasize both a piece’s drama and its lyricism, and that facet sparkles throughout the performances on these discs. The rhythmic vitality initiated in the first movement is equally evident in the Andante second movement, in which some conductors sacrifice momentum in pursuit of externalized, often wrongheaded emotional contexts for the fifteen-year-old composer’s music. In this performance, Nézet-Séguin avoids the traps of approaching Symphony No. 1 as juvenilia that requires delicate handling or as a mature masterpiece needing no advocacy. The confident playing of the COE musicians heightens appreciation of the confidence that the young Mendelssohn’s music exudes. Nézet-Séguin manages the third movement’s transition from Menuetto to Trio with elegance, following the music’s lead. The energy with which Mendelssohn infused the Symphony’s closing Allegro con fuoco movement courses through this performance, the COE’s string playing a model of taut ensemble. The composer’s beloved sister Fanny must have been delighted by the Symphony, which was first performed in celebration of her nineteenth birthday, and that elation is recreated in this performance. How many birthday gifts continue to provide such enjoyment after 193 years?
Composed in 1840 in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the invention of modern printing, Mendelssohn’s large-scaled Lobgesang (Opus 52 / MWV A 18), a cousin of Beethoven’s Ninth and Mahler’s Second Symphonies, was published after the composer’s death as his Symphony No. 2. Chronologically, its genesis followed that of the Italian Symphony, but it was never regarded by the composer as a symphony, an opinion that was honored by the scholarly edition of the Mendelssohn canon prepared for the composer’s bicentennial in 2009, in which the Lobgesang was classified as a choral work rather than a symphony. Nevertheless, the piece’s structure has much in common with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the duration of the final movement with vocal soloists and chorus exceding that of the instrumental movements combined. Under Nézet-Séguin’s leadership, the introductory Sinfonia possesses the grandeur necessary to prefacing so ambitious a work, but there are no traces of pomposity. The sincerity of the sense of ceremony that pervades the Maestoso con moto - Allegro lends the performance as a whole a welcome honesty. Nézet-Séguin interprets the subsequent Allegretto un poco agitato with straightforward vigor that contrasts markedly with the contemplative nuance of the conductor’s pacing of the Adagio religioso.
When the voices of the RIAS Kammerchor are first heard in the Allegro moderato maestoso chorus ‘Alles, was Odem hat, lobe den Herrn,’ the perceptiveness of Mendelssohn’s settings of the Biblical texts selected for his Lobgesang is immediately apparent. Enhanced by the uncommon clearness of the recorded sound, the choristers’ crystalline diction enables every syllable to be discerned. Joining the ladies of the chorus in ‘Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele,’ soprano Karina Gauvin offers excellent diction of her own, allied here with vocalism of unassailable concentration and poise. The tonal beauty of tenor Daniel Behle’s singing of the recitative ‘Saget es, die ihr erlöst seid durch den Herrn’ and Allegro moderato aria ‘Er zählet unsre Tränen’ is stirring, but the subtlety of his enunciation of text is no less impressive. Supported by conductor and orchestra, the choral reprise of ‘Saget es, die ihr erlöst seid’ resounds with probity.
In their Andante duet, ‘Ich harrete des Herrn,’ Gauvin and soprano Regula Mühlemann blend their very different voices with consummate skill, the Canadian soprano’s slightly heavier timbre providing a warm rose-gold setting for her colleague’s opalescent tones. The chorus ‘Wohl dem, der seine Hoffnung setzt’ is delivered with musical and emotional power, Nézet-Séguin’s conducting spotlighting the organic thematic development in even Mendelssohn’s most transparent writing. Behle’s mellifluous voicing of ‘Stricke des Todes hatten uns umfangen’ is answered by Gauvin’s radiant reading of ‘Die Nacht ist vergangen,’ and their RIAS Kammerchor comrades elucidate the meaningful intricacies of the exuberant Allegro maestoso e molto vivace ‘Die Nacht ist vergangen.’ Marked Andante con moto - Un poco più animato, the chorale ‘Nun danket alle Gott’ is sung atmospherically, the sounds of the words used to conjure an aura of spiritual awe. The Andante sostenuto troppo duet ‘Drum sing’ ich mit meinem Liede ewig dein Lob’ receives from Behle and Gauvin a traversal of moving sensitivity, Mendelssohn’s melodic lines blossoming with the semblance of spontaneity. The Allegro non troppo chorus ‘Ihr Völker, bringet her dem Herrn Ehre und Macht!’ and final ‘Danket dem Herrn und rühmt seinen Namen’ are performed without affectation: choristers, instrumentalists, and conductor all inhabit the music as though it were their own creation. Symphony, cantata, or hybrid, Mendelssohn’s Lobgesang is in this performance a genuine hymn of praise.
The editions of the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Symphonies employed by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and Nézet-Séguin for the concerts that yielded these recordings were prepared by late British conductor and musicologist Christopher Hogwood, whose close acquaintance with Baroque and Classical repertories afforded him an unique perspective on Mendelssohn’s music. This is particularly valuable in Symphony No. 3 in A minor (Opus 56 / MWV N 18), the widely-known Scottish Symphony inspired by the composer’s travels through the Highlands and Scotland’s rugged islands. Whether or not his own globetrotting has instilled in Nézet-Séguin any special affection for Scotland, his affinity for Mendelssohn’s musical portrait of the country is unmistakable. The metamorphoses from Andante con moto to Allegro un poco agitato, Assai animato, and Andante come prima in the Symphony’s first movement are exaggerated by many conductors at the expense of continuity, but Nézet-Séguin finds within each change of tempo its core relationship with the movement’s broader structure. In the Vivace non troppo movement that follows, the electricity of the musicians’ playing illuminates Highlands landscapes in the listener’s mind’s eye. The impact of the polarity of the subsequent Adagio could hardly be greater, but here, too, Nézet-Séguin and COE only accentuate the disparities that are inherent in the music, playing what Mendelssohn wrote as he wrote it and inviting the listener to share in the labor of interpretation. As realized in this performance, the evocative effervescence of the Allegro vivacissimo - Allegro maestoso assai movement mimics the crashing of the sea upon Scotland’s craggy coastline. The appeal of this music is difficult to resist in the context of half-hearted performances: here, the mighty Hebrides themselves might be swept away by the force of the music making.
Dating from 1833, in which year the score was premièred by the London Philharmonic Society, Symphony No. 4 in A major (Opus 90 / MWV N 16), christened by the composer as his Italian Symphony, is perhaps Mendelssohn’s most familiar work in symphonic form, and its profusion of sun-drenched tunes is a formidable attraction. The picturesque immediacy of the writing in the Scottish Symphony is paralleled and perhaps exceeded by that in the Italian, and every Mediterranean detail of Mendelssohn’s musical depiction of bella Italia is affectionately illustrated by Nézet-Séguin and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. The whir of traffic in the congested streets of Rome buzzes in their playing of the Allegro vivace, and their performance of the Andante con moto suggests the relaxed ambiance of the emblematic passeggiata. Nézet-Séguin perfectly judges Mendelssohn’s ‘Con moto moderato’ instruction in the Menuetto, his tempo precisely suited to the music and COE’s truly terpsichorean playing of it. The Presto Saltarello is among the few pieces of Classical Music to have enjoyed life beyond its natural habitat. Recognized by listeners who have never seen the interior of a concert hall, its frenetic opening subject is unforgettable. Regrettably, many performances of the Italian Symphony are all too forgettable, but the rendering of the Saltarello that concludes this performance of the Symphony is representative of a fusion of engaging moxie with irreproachable musicianship. This is not German fare that has been artifically flavored with Italian herbs but a festa italiana prepared by a chef d’orchestre with cosmopolitan flair.
It is hardly surprising that a composer as respectful of and responsive to music of prior generations as Mendelssohn should have drawn considerable inspiration from history. As vibrant as the musical vistas in the Scottish and Italian Symphonies is the aural homage to spiritual renewal in the Reformation Symphony, Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5 in D minor (Opus 107 / MWV N 15). Negotiating the shift from Andante to Allegro con fuoco in the opening movement with his customary attention to the composer’s motivations for the change, Nézet-Séguin leads this performance of the Reformation with controlled zeal. The COE strings’ articulation in the Allegro vivace compels admiration, and the orchestra’s brass playing is praiseworthy throughout the performance. Kettledrums have never been more effectively—and sometimes startlingly—recorded than on these discs. Leading into the recitative that announces the Symphony’s final chorale, the Andante radiates the simplicity that is the nucleus of the greatest works of art. Nézet-Séguin observes the reverence of Mendelssohn’s treatment of Martin Luther’s ‘Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott,’ guiding the orchestra in a display of sonorous solemnity. Navigating the Andante con moto, Allegro vivace, and Allegro maestoso sections with grace, conductor and musicians resolve Mendelssohn’s Reformation with an exhibition of the power of music to communicate universal ideals of endurance and hope that require neither words nor creeds.
In analyses of the development of the modern symphony from its origins in Baroque models to the Twenty-First-Century incarnations, the vital rôle played by Felix Mendelssohn is often undervalued and sometimes altogether overlooked. The important contributions of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, and Mahler to the symphony’s Darwinian progress are universally acknowledged, but Mendelssohn’s Symphonies, though widely respected, are encountered less frequently in the repertories of the world’s great orchestras than those of his illustrious fellow symphonists. The quincentennial of Martin Luther’s instigation of the Protestant Reformation is an apt occasion for a reappraisal of Mendelssohn’s Symphonies. As in any repertoire, the most persuasive argument on behalf of the quality of Mendelssohn’s music is made by playing it as the composer intended it to be played, seeking meaning and relevance within the scores. Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe accomplish this as compellingly in these performances of Mendelssohn’s Symphonies as in their DGG survey of Mozart’s mature operas, soon to be expanded by a recording of La clemenza di Tito. Mendelssohn’s Symphonies pose challenging questions to conductors and musicians, but the performances on this new release find answers that are not exclusively but wholly right.