Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Mendelssohn: Symphony #5

We return to classical music's second best-known prodigy, Felix Mendelssohn. Today I'll be writing about his Fifth Symphony.
Herbert Von Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Five Symphonies

Deutsche Grammophon, 1973
It's been a long while since I returned to this three-CD set of Mendelssohn's five symphonies. I covered Symphony #1 way back in March 2008, and somehow eight months passed by before I came back to this collection (a side note: a commenter left a link on that post to a weirdly mesmerizing performance of Louis Farrakhan--yep, that Louis Farrakhan--playing a Mendelssohn violin concerto. You just never know who might be out there in cyberspace reading your blogs).

In any event, what is taking me so long to finish off this CD? It's certainly not because the music isn't wonderful. But I will say that on some level, Mendelssohn's symphonies lack the powerful feeling of some of the other Romantic composers we've been listening to lately. It's been such a pleasure exploring more intense works of that era that I guess I just haven't been drawn back to Mendelssohn until now.

Forgive me for borrowing a couple of exhausted terms from the political arena, but Mendelssohn was the "conservative" of the Romantic era. His music evoked the greats of the past like Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, and, to borrow a quote from The Essential Canon of Classical Music, he "repressed some of the more violent aspects of Romanticism"--meaning in part that his music neither challenged Classical era rules nor burst with the intense emotion of less repressed Romantic composers like Liszt, Chopin and Schumann.

Thus Liszt, Chopin and Schumann were the "progressives" of the Romantic era. These men, variously alienated or at odds with conventional society, wrote music that shattered the rigid structures of Classical-era music and had a level of emotional content (and in the case of Schumann, a level of madness) that shocked audiences at the time.

It's understandable, then, that Mendelssohn's music was seen as more comfortable and approachable by music fans of the day, although in my opinion the "progressives" ultimately won out--their music simply sounds more compelling today than Mendelssohn's pleasurable and innocuous symphonies.

Listener Notes for Mendelssohn's Symphony #5:
1) Why on earth would you release a CD that plays Mendelssohn's symphonies in this order?:

Disc 1: Symphony #1 and #5
Disc 2: Symphony #2
Disc 3: Symphony #3 and #4

Ironically, these symphonies are exactly in order, if you ignore their deceptive numbering and list them in the order in which they were written. Mendelssohn's Fifth Symphony was actually his second, his Second was actually his third, and so on. Make sense? I didn't think so.

2) The Allegro section of the first movement sounds Bach-like in structure, but in temperament, it sounds like Mendelssohn trying to imitate Beethoven.

3) Recognize the theme of the second movement? It's the hymn "Away in a Manger."

4) I have to say that I particularly enjoyed the short but sweet third movement. It's a pleasure to listen to the tightly restrained emotion of the string section.

5) Yet another familiar music alert: do you recognize the key theme of the final movement? It's the well-known hymn "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" which should be familiar to most Protestants.

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