Mendelssohn: Symphony No.1, Symphony No.4 ‘Italian’ – Sir John Eliot Gardiner with the LSO


And they’re off ….. the violins tumbling in, exploding with sound for the opening of Mendelssohn’s First Symphony. None of the repeats of this motif manage to have quite the same shocking energy, but measure and control frame the first movement, which quickly moves into the strings accompanying the delicate wind. The chord sequences may be predictable – remember of course that this is Mendelssohn’s First Symphony, written at only the age of 15 – but it is marked out by such tender writing for the wind in the quieter moments and an overwhelming vision for the string-dominated tutti sections.

Moving on with their Mendelssohn symphony cycle, Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the London Symphony Orchestra bring us here symphonies No.1 and 4 in live concert recordings from February 2016 and March 2014 at the Barbican.

The Andante is a more gentle matter than the opening Allegro. After the initial slow development of the theme, a lovely passage follows, beautifully handled by the LSO, with tailing wind falling phrases. The Scherzo follows, with the trademark lightness of touch we have come to expect from the very best of playful Mendelssohn. In this performance both the 1829 revised version and the 1824 original version of the third movement are played; the earlier 1824 Menuetto follows the 1829 Scherzo, an adaptation of the movement from Mendelssohn’s Octet for strings. In the Menuetto the orchestral writing feels much more attuned to the style of the first movement and there is a gorgeous middle section with gentle strings accompanying the wind soloists. But, that said, Mendelssohn so stylistically adapts his own Scherzo, it really is a joy to hear it with full orchestra – a nice bonus to this performance.

The final Allegro con fuoco returns to more predictable territory for the young composer. It is hard after having heard the advancement of his skills for the 1829 Scherzo and in fact the sophistication of the original Menuetto to remain excited for this final movement. The LSO do all they can, but for me, early symphonies by young composers must often be heard as a learning exercise.

We swoop then into the delights of Symphony No.4 ‘Italian’, which succeeds in evoking with its quasi-operatic melodies the land of grace and beauty. This work is opus 90 for Mendelssohn, compared to opus 11 for the First Symphony, and was written following his autumn trip to Italy in 1830. There is an infectious jollity to the music which the LSO convey exceptionally. Mendelssohn’s orchestral works are often a tour de force for the strings, as his style is to employ them in complicated rising and falling passages of semiquavers to express both tumult and joy. The restraint and poise shown in the Andante following such a passage at the end of the first movement is impressive.

The twizzling and turning of the Saltarello dance infuses the final Presto and reminds us why Mendelssohn is such a master of expression. The technical challenges are as nothing to the LSO and Sir John Eliot Gardiner keeps them well to pace. This is one of the movements where it is worth remembering that the violins and violas in this Mendelssohn cycle stand to play, bringing a definite vigour and dynamism to their performance, and as Sir John Eliot Gardiner himself says, giving a “tremendous sense of the occasion to the music making.”

Katie Lodge

Katie Lodge

I'm 28 and live in Gateshead.

A few years back I started doing something I never thought I could - writing about classical music. Encouraged by the lovely team at NE:MM I've spent the time since revelling in live performances at the Sage, as well as Corbridge and Durham, and extolling the wonderful virtues of CDs I could not afford to buy. Through NE:MM I've even been introduced to opera, my once hated nemesis!

In the rest of my not-so-spare time, I play the violin locally in the New Tyneside Orchestra and Orchestra North East.

The best bit about all of this? Reading what all the other contributors write about their specialist genre. I learn so much!
Katie Lodge

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