Sunday, July 1, 2012

Young Felix Mendelssohn traveled to Italy, and when he returned home . . .

Volker Hartung conducts the Cologne Young Philharmonic in the first movement of Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony in Cologne's Philharmonie, 1999. (He keeps the movement trimmed down by skipping the exposition repeat.)

by Ken

For everything from simple warm-weather vacation destination to deep cultural repository, Europe's southernmost projections -- the Iberian, Italian, and Greek peninsulas -- have always exerted a magnetic pull on the continents more northerly inhabitants. We've already sampled the musical fascinations of Spain, but musicians have always felt a special connection to the cradle of Italy. We began listening to products of this connection in Friday night's preview, a tribute to Tchaikovsky's tribute, the Capriccio italien, and we'll be returning to Tchaikovsky's Italophilia, but today we're going to listen to Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony.

This image graced the jacket of the original Epic LP issue of George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra's stereo recording of Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony. (We're going to hear their earlier mono version -- eventually.)


In this master-class excerpt, Kurt Masur works with Huba Hollokoy on the ravishing slow movement of Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony (from


. . . but I didn't -- or even anything sufficiently utilitarian to be worth cadging. So let's just run down the basic facts.

Over a two-year-plus period between 1830 and 1832 the 21-year-old (when he set out) Mendelssohn made a "grand trip" that included a fair amount of time spent in Italy, where he was too busy to actually compose an "Italian symphony," which he set out to do when he finally returned home, after stops in Paris (where he met Chopin) and London (where he met Paganini [UPDATE: no, wait, I think that was on a later visit to London]). In May 1833 he conducted a highly successful premiere of the new symphony in London, but he was never satisfied with it, and his resolution to "fix" it kept him from allowing it to be published -- and then time ran out on him, in November 1847, two months shy of his 38th birthday.

Much ink has been spilled, to remarkably little purpose, discussing and debating the symphony's "Italianness." The point, it seems to me, is that all of this spelled Italy for Mendelssohn. (Perhaps the farcical limit was reached in a comment on a YouTube posting of a poor-quality video clip of part of the first movement as conducted, admittedly not wildly quickly, by Kurt Masur (whom we in fact are about to hear conduct the movement.) The comment:

"it's too slow. it's not Italian at all...."

Mamma mia!


The performances have been chosen to suggest some qualities I think are worth noting in the music.

MENDELSSOHN: Symphony No. 4 in A, Op. 90 (Italian):
i. Allegro vivace
An Amazon commenter notes disparagingly that there are "more thrilling" recordings of the Mendelssohn symphonies than Kurt Masur's, and this is probably true, and is likely important to people who believe that thrills are what life is about, or possibly what art is supposed to supply in order to fill the thrill gap in life, much in the manner of modern-day amusement parks, where rides seem to have no other function. A lot of conductors indeed believe that the correct way to play the zestful opening movement of the Italian Symphony is to rev up the thrill quotient, and I can enjoy performances like Leonard Bernstein's New York recording. Pretty exciting, no? (When LB rerecorded the symphony, as was so often the case he slowed it down, but in this case really not that much.)

By contrast, Kurt Masur's performance, with Mendelssohn's own Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, seems to me to communicate a good deal more in the music -- fluidity, elegance, sophisticated exhilaration. It doesn't betray that speedy-sounding Allegro vivace tempo marking, but it has more dimension, more shapeliness, in the end more fun.

New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, cond. Columbia/CBS/Sony, recorded Jan. 13, 1958

Gewandhaus Orchestra (Leipzig), Kurt Masur, cond. Eurodisc/Deutsche Schallplatten/BMG, recorded c1971

ii. Andante con moto
I've heard lots of performances of this slow movement that make it sound prosaic and dull. Here we have two performances that in terms of tempo could hardly be more different but surprisingly achieve, for me at least, similar results: near-rapturous songfulness. Not many conductors could achieve this at either the velocity of Solti or the leisurely pace of Casals. There's so much liquid beauty in the latter that I would hate to give it up, but I really don't feel much sacrifice with Solti's performance -- it doesn't sound fast, does it?

Vienna Philharmonic, Sir Georg Solti, cond. Decca, recorded live, February 1993

Marlboro Festival Orchestra, Pablo Casals, cond. Columbia/CBS/Sony, recorded 1963

iii. Con moto moderato
In the scherzo we again have a startling contrast in pacing. This time there's no question that Ashkenazy and Karajan are hearing the music very differently -- Ashkenazy focusing on the "movement" in con moto, Karajan really feeling the moderating influence of that moderato qualifier. It's a really big chance Karajan takes here -- and I think brings it off.

Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Vladimir Ashkenazy, cond. Decca, recorded May 1996

Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan, cond. DG, recorded January 1971

iv. Saltarello: Presto
As in the first movement, conductors commonly want to take this obviously quick-moving movement quickly. (And the Presto tempo marking certainly justifies it.) Not many of them, however, can maintain the kind of poise that Tennstedt does in what seems to me a quite terrific performance. At the same time, as with so many pieces of music where quickness is built into the fabric, it's hardly necessary, and can be counterproductive, to overemphasize that quickness, as so many conductors do. By contrast, Klemperer's performance (actually not all that much slower) certainly moves breezily while allowing room to incorporate dimensions of shape, color, and temperament.

Berlin Philharmonic, Klaus Tennstedt, cond. EMI, recorded 1980

Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, cond. EMI, recorded February 1960


. . . in a performance of the quicker-is-better variety ("Mamma mia, that's Italian!"), but a pretty decent one.

MENDELSSOHN: Symphony No. 4 in A, Op. 90 (Italian):
i. Allegro vivace
ii Andante con moto
iii. Con moto moderato
iv. Saltarello: Presto

Cleveland Orchestra, George Szell, cond. Columbia, recorded Nov. 26, 1947 (digital transfer by F. Reeder)


Yes, for $1.59 you can download this fine Vox recording by the Rochester Philharmonic under David Zinman, who for some decades now has been for me about as reliable a conductor as there is out there. (We're going to be hearing from him again next week when we return to Tchaikovsky's remembrances of Italy.)


We hear Tchaikovsky's sextet for strings Souvenir de Florence.

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