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Proms 2009: Prom 20 – Mendelssohn Reformation Symphony No.5 \ Scottish Chamber Orchestra \ Yannick Nézet-Séguin

August 1, 2009

Mendelssohn is quite a confusing composer. Tonight’s Symphony No. 5 – the Reformation – isn’t his fifth at all. It is in fact his second, written before his most popular Italian Symphony – the fourth. His fourth was written after the fifth, the third (the ‘Scottish’) written ten years after that. Mendelssohn is all a bit confusing.

Such a point may in itself seem deathly dull and nothing but a demonstration of years of study masking an innate sense of smugness. I deny the latter as much as I do the former accusation mostly because I forked out £3 for tonight’s programme notes (my iPhone was running dangerously low on charge) from where I acquired this information. The rest I found on Wikipedia. Yes, I was that pushed for time on the research front.

Remembering exactly what the true order of his output was important for tonight’s performance given by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

There are bits in the Reformation Symphony which sound a lot like Beethoven 6. There are other bits which sound a lot like Mozart, bits where the strings spar with the woodwind when it sounds a bit like the Italian Symphony.

There were even moments when I suddenly started thinking of Radio 4 comedies when the music is deliberately composed to sound a bit like something else but not quite so no-one has to fork out for PRS and the fear of copyright stormtroopers is of little concern. And listening to music like that can be quite infuriating.

The programme notes also made out that Mendelssohn wasn’t quite as keen on the uncommissioned symphony as he might have hoped. So much so there even came a point when he wanted to burn the entire score.

In fairness this may have been going a little far. Mendelssohn’s orchestral music is safe, it seems to me. You always know you’ll be coaxed along by Mendelssohn’s sounds. His Hymn of Praise (last night’s symphony was uplifting to the point of casting Beethoven’s Choral Symphony in the doldrums). Is Mendlessohn vanilla however? Is he, in fact, a ‘beige’ composer?

Such implicit criticisms are definitely going to far, but still I couldn’t help feeling a little dissatisfied towards the end of the work. After all the understandable references to other composers I’d smugly made a note of in my notebook, hearing what seemed like Bach chorale crowbarred into the beginning of the last movement seemed incongruous.

It was in fact the one thing in the entire symphony which was really memorable which, on reflection, makes the fifth symphony (for me, at least) a shadow of the fourth. Was Mendelssohn’s back catalogue of symphonies a victim of his own posthumous success with the fourth?

Confused? Of course you are. Mendelssohn was confusing. But listen to the fifth symphony anyway. It’s only by listening to an entire composer’s output we get a sense of why we love the stuff we love.

One Comment
  1. David Hemingway permalink

    What struck me about the Mendelssohn symphonies this week was not how they referred back to Beethoven and Mozart, but how much they looked forward, especially to Wagner and Bruckner.

    Mendelssohn and Schumann, in their different ways, stand on the brink between classical and romantic. Friday’s concert, featuring both, allowed a direct comparison: we could hear how Mendelssohn drew on his knowledge of the past to invent new sonorities and textures, while Schumann seems to pluck inspiration from the air and to point the way to new structural concepts.

    Late 19th century music (and thus the 20th and 21st centuries) would have been worse off without either of them. It’s tragically ironic that Wagner, in particular, was so bi-polar about Mendelssohn – and we all know where that led. But that’s for a different blog.

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