Monday, February 2, 2009

Mendelssohn: Symphony #4

Mendelssohn began the initial sketches of his Fourth Symphony after a visit to Italy. His visit there was part of a tour he took across Europe in his early twenties, something any newly-minted college kid might appreciate.

Of course Mendelssohn didn't exactly stay at youth hostels. Having been born into an extremely wealthy family, and already famous for his musical skills, he spent his tour dazzling the highest echelons of European society.
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Herbert Von Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Five Symphonies
Deutsche Grammophon, 1973
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Unfortunately, this symphony never really satisfied Mendelssohn. He made repeated and wholesale revisions to the work, and it was never published during his lifetime. And yet this work was loved when it first premiered, and it remains one of Mendelssohn's most popular works to this day.
Once again, a brilliant composer judges his own music far too harshly.

A quick musical recommendation for any readers interested in buying Mendelssohn's symphonies. The Five Symphonies CD from Deutsche Grammophon featured in today's post is definitely worth owning, but since his Third and Fourth Symphonies stand out above the others, there's an even better option: this highly regarded CD, also recorded by Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic, which contains the Third and Fourth Symphonies by themselves. You can get the best of Mendelssohn while saving yourself an extra thirty bucks.

Listener notes for Mendelssohn's Fourth Symphony:
1) Right away we have quite a contrast to the Third Symphony, as this symphony lacks a lengthy dramatic intro and instead starts right in on the main theme.

2) Nice to hear a clarinet play a few parts and only be slightly off-key at times, unlike the clarinet playing on the last few discs I've listened to. I'm still reflexively cringing whenever I hear a clarinet, and I wonder how long it's going to take me to break that habit.

3)
The second movement starts out like a kind of a fugue, adding layer upon layer as it goes. The movement builds tension as the key shifts from minor to major several times. And then the music just fades away, softly and mysteriously. It's beautiful.

4) The trumpets don't get to do much during this symphony. And when they do come in, with some obligatory "bup bup-bup buhhhh" parts at the 5:54 in the third movement, it's clear
that their instruments have gone cold and out of tune. Sigh.

5) Did I like this work more or less than Mendelssohn's Third? Only slightly less. I really enjoyed both symphonies, but the twists and turns and extra drama and excitement of the Third makes it my favorite of this composer's symphonies. What a privilege it has been to have the opportunity to listen carefully to each of these works!



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