Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Mendelssohn: Symphony #3

Over the next two posts, we will finish off the remaining two Felix Mendelssohn's symphonies on my 3-CD collection of his Five Symphonies. Today, we'll cover his Third, the "Scottish" Symphony.
Herbert Von Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Five Symphonies

Deutsche Grammophon, 1973
In my view, Mendelssohn's Third Symphony is the best one I've listened to yet, after having listened to his First, his marathon Second, and his Fifth.

And my boy Felix himself backs me up on this one: according to the unusually well-written liner notes accompanying this CD (written by Ivan March), Mendelssohn "valued the 'Scottish' Symphony above the others."

Mendelssohn was inspired to compose this work after a visit to Scotland in 1829, and the introductory theme of this symphony burst into his mind upon seeing the famous Holyrood Abbey ruins.

It's interesting, however, that my primary classical music reference source, David Dubal's The Essential Canon of Classical Music, barely mentions the Third. Only Mendelssohn's Fourth Symphony warrant any discussion. That's a significant oversight in my view.

I'll see for myself how well Mendelssohn's Fourth stacks up against his Third in my next post. I can tell you right now, however, that it's going to be a challenge to beat out this wonderful symphony.

Listener notes for Mendelssohn's Third Symphony:
1) Most of the drama in this symphony happens in the surprisingly long first movement, and there are some really intriguing harmonies and unusual melodies here. Right away, this symphony sounds more intriguing, and has a lot more drama and torment, than Symphonies 1, 2 and 5 combined.

2) Listen to the unusual chord the orchestra plays at the 0:21 mark, and in particular, listen to the note that the french horn plays in that chord. I can't remember enough music theory to tell you what that chord is exactly, but it is a chord that doesn't belong in the year 1842, especially from someone seen as a conservative among the Romantic-era composers. I'm beginning to develop more and more appreciation for Mendelssohn's compositional risk-taking.

3) Also, listen at 5:54-6:10 in the first movement--there's an almost modern-sounding violin part. This guy sounds more like he's ahead of his time, not behind it.

4) A comment on the structure of the first movement: it appears to have an extremely long, Haydn-style introduction, with the true theme not starting until almost four minutes into the movement.

5) After that long and tense first movement, the second movement practically seems like an amuse-bouche.

6) When I listen to the third and fourth movements of this symphony, I can't help but appreciate how Mendelssohn can drive quite a bit of power out of just a smallish orchestra--it makes you think that composers like Mahler cheat a little bit by scoring their music for supersized symphonies.

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