MENDELSSOHN: Symphonies No. 3 and 4 (David Ellis/ Ireland National Symphony Orchestra/ Reinhard Seifried) (Naxos: 8.553200)
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Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809 - 1847)
Symphony No.3 in A Minor, Op. 56 "Scottish"
Symphony No.4 in A Major, Op. 90 "Italian"
Felix Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg in 1809, son of the banker AbrahamMendelssohn and grandson of the great Jewish thinker Moses Mendelssohn, themodel for Lessing's Nathan the Wise, the epitome of tolerance in a generallyintolerant world. In 1812 the family moved to Berlin after the French occupationof Hamburg and it was there that Mendelssohn received his education, in music asa pupil of Carl Zelter, for whom the boy seemed a second Mozart. As a child hewas charming and precocious, profiting from the wide cultural interests of hisparents and relations, excelling as a pianist and busy with composition aftercomposition. In 1816 he was baptized a Christian, a step that his father tooksix years later, accepting what Heine described as a ticket of admission intoEuropean culture although it was one not always regarded as valid by prejudicedcontemporaries.
Abraham Mendelssohn sought the best advice when it came to his son's choiceof career. Cherubini, director of the Paris Conservatoire, was consulted, and,while complimenting Abraham Mendelssohn on his wealth, agreed that his sonshould become a professional musician, advice given during the course of a visitto Paris in 1825 when Mendelssohn met many of the most distinguished composersand performers of the day. In Berlin his career took shape, with prolificcomposition and activity as a pianist and as a conductor. His education was toinclude a period of travel throughout Europe, a Grand Tour that took him as farnorth as Scotland and as far south as Naples, his journeys serving as sources ofinspiration.
In 1835 Mendelssohn was appointed conductor of the Leipzig GewandhausOrchestra. There were, at the same time, other commitments to be fulfilled in ashort career of intense activity. In Leipzig he established a series ofhistorical concerts, continuing the revival of earlier music on which he hadembarked under Zelter with the Berlin performance of Bach's St. MatthewPassion in 1829. At the same time he gave every encouragement tocontemporary composers, even to those for whom he felt little sympathy. At theinsistence of the Russian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV he accepted an officialposition in Berlin, but this failed to give him the satisfaction he had found inLeipzig, where he established the Conservatory in 1843 and where he spent hisfinal years until his death at the age of thirty-eight on 4th November 1847, sixmonths after the death of his beloved sister Fanny.
In childhood Mendelssohn had written thirteen string symphonies between theages of twelve and fourteen. In what must pass for maturity, starting at the ageof fifteen, he wrote five more symphonies for full orchestra. Symphony No.3in A minor, Opus 56, was the second in conception and the last in order ofcompletion. Its first inspiration came from a visit to Scotland in 1829. InApril Mendelssohn had arrived in London, after an unpleasant voyage fromHamburg, Two months later in a letter to his teacher Zelter he mentioned hisplans for the summer, after the end of London season, a projected journey toScotland, a country that figured largely in romantic imagination thanks to thework of Sir Walter Scott. Accompanied by his friend Karl Klingemann he travellednorth. In Edinburgh he recalled the story of Mary, Queen of Scots, and themurder of her secretary David Rizzio in the palace of Holyrood, and in theruined chapel first entertained the idea of a Scottish symphony. Further northhe could comment on the climate, remarking that the Highlands brew nothing butwhisky, fog and foul weather, while the voyage by steamer to see the island ofStaffa and what he described as the odious Fingal's cave, made him sea-sick. Inspite of this he immediately sketched the opening theme of the HebridesOverture, which was later revised to be performed in 1832 in London, whereit won immediate popularity.
In the autumn of 1830 Mendelssohn was in Italy and it was there that hecompleted, revised and later rechristened the Hebrides Overture. Twosymphonies occupied his thoughts, while a third was commissioned for theReformation centenary. The Reformation Symphony, No.5, was completed in1832, and the Italian Symphony, No.4, in 1833. The Scottish Symphony waslonger in intermittent gestation and was only finished in 1842 and given itsfirst performance in Leipzig in the same year. The first movement opens withsixteen bars that Mendelssohn first sketched in Holyrood chapel in Edinburgh, anidea that makes other appearances in his oratorios St. Paul and Elijah,expanded into a melancholy recitative. The main part of the movementintroduces a theme of Scottish contour, played by clarinet and strings, and theclarinet introduces the second subject, the material splendidly developed. Themovement ends with a return to the opening mood. The sound of the bagpipes isnear enough in the second movement, which leads to a lyrical slow movement,varied by hints of martial valour to come. The final movement makes use of fivethemes, apparently derived from songs, and the source of much programmaticspeculation from those who like to hear in it the gathering of the clans.
The Italian Symphony was completed in 1833 but remained unpublished inMendelssohn's life-time because of his own dissatisfaction with it and hisintention of revising the first movement. The ideas for the work were developedduring his stay in Italy in 1831, and the whole symphony, described by theVienna critic Eduard Hanslick as "full of sweet enchantment, anintoxicating floral fragrance", fits well enough the composer's own view ofit as "the gayest thing I have ever done".
The first movement opens with the violins offering the initial cheerfultheme, over repeated wind chords. Classical procedure is followed, withclarinets and bassoons playing a second subject over a busy stringaccompaniment. The central development of the movement introduces a third theme,with the opening figure providing material that leads to the re- appearance ofthe first subject and the recapitulation. The second movement is the famous Pilgrims'March, the solemn theme of the procession announced by oboes, bassoons andviolas, with the melody unfolding over the rhythmic march of the lower strings.
A third movement, described by one critic as "a Biedermeier minuet",has about it something of the spirit of Mendelssohn's fairy music for AMidsummer Night's Dream, but it is in the rapid elegance of the final Saltarelloand the concluding Neapolitan tarantella that this mood is decisivelyrecaptured.
National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland
The RTÉ Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1947 as part of the Radio andTelevision service in Ireland. With its membership coming from France, Germany,Britain, Italy, Hungary, Poland and Russia, it drew together a rich blend ofEuropean culture. Apart from its many symphony concerts, the orchestra came toworld-wide attention with its participation in the famous Wexford OperaFestival, an event broadcast in many parts of the world. The orchestra nowenjoys the facilities of a fine new concert hall in central Dublin where itperforms with the world's leading conductors and soloists. In 1990 the RTÉSymphony Orchestra was augmented and renamed the National Symphony Orchestra ofIreland, quickly establishing itself as one of Europe's most adventurousorchestras with programmes featuring many twentieth century compositions. Theorchestra has now embarked upon a