Let's have a word about Mendelssohn this week.
When I was a young lad, I knew about his incredible precocity: I had early exposure to his genius in the teenage Octet, the first chamber work to comprehensively blow me away, some time before the steely grip of Beethoven seized me by the throat. There was a lot of Mendelssohn in the house, including, surprisingly, a set of those youthful string symphonies. Overall, I wasn't that impressed, though: Mendelssohn's music, next to what was gripping my imagination as a youngster, seemed rather tame and a bit too vegetarian for a musical palate that demanded red meat.
And my rebellious consciousness recognised only two symphonies: No 4 (the Italian) and No 3 (the Scottish). I knew there was a fifth, but its title, The Reformation, put me off for years before I actually heard the thing (far too churchy for a young delinquent tearing himself free from the stranglehold of his Jesuit upbringing). I knew there was a No 2, which had a funny foreign title: I can even place it visually on the shelves in the front room where my dad stored his LPs. But I didn't go near it once I saw there were voices in it and it wasn't Beethoven Nine. (Not a real symphony at all, in other words.) Little could I have guessed that this view would persist to this day in some quarters.
Loading article content
Proper appreciation of Mendelssohn's symphonies has moved on a bit since the early 1960s, and I am so pleased that, at long last, the Fifth Symphony, the Reformation, seems to be gaining a foothold on the mainstream concert repertoire (but only if it's in the right hands: no sluggish, worthy, churchy interpretations, please, conductors). I've heard the Reformation in concert a couple of times in recent years. And there's a major CD project under way on the Chandos record label titled Mendelssohn In Birmingham, of which Volume One has just recently been released. It features the City of Birmingham Orchestra with conductor Edward Gardner and includes performances of the Italian and Reformation Symphonies, along with the Hebrides Overture.
But all the while that poor old Second Symphony, whose title is Lobgesang, seems to have pretty much languished in obscurity and neglect. Indeed, I was almost certain I had never heard it in concert. So I phoned the Scottish orchestras and, ever obliging, their trusty marketing and communications officers got on the case, scouring their databases and earlier card index systems in search of a single complete performance. Nobody found one. I know some extracts were played at the recent Usher Hall centenary concert, but that's not quite the same thing. And I also now know, having become very familiar with it from a new recording I reviewed a few weeks back by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra with Pablo Heras Casado, a chorus and team of soloists, that it's an absolutely fantastic piece, wholly undeserving of its widespread neglect.
Despite its numbering, it's not an early piece. Because of Mendelssohn's continual revising of his music, and differences between first performance dates and publication dates, there has long been confusion between the symphony numbers, as we now know them, and the order in which they were actually written. The youthful First Symphony was written first. Thereafter, they're all wrong. The Fifth Symphony (the Reformation), was actually written second, while the Fourth Symphony (the Italian) was written third, the symphony under discussion - the Second (Lobgesang) - was written fourth, and his final symphony, the Third (aka the Scottish), was written last.
Confused? Sorry; not my fault. Does it matter? Yes, for sheer accuracy; and probably not, if, like me, you'd rather hear a live performance in Scotland of this absolute cracker of a piece. There is no weakness in it, despite its hybrid nature. And the quality of the music, to say nothing of the subtleties of continuity that Mendelssohn lavished on the symphony, have the work, for me, now permanently resident in the topmost drawer of the composer's creations.