Thoughts, opinions and general musical ramblings...
Often looked down on by conductors, players and listeners who are acclimatized to Mendelssohn’s 3rd and 4th Symphonies, the ‘Reformation Symphony’ – numbered as Mendelssohn’s 5th, but chronologically his second – is a work of passion and vigour not often associated with Mendelssohn.
If I asked 100 Classic FM listeners to name a piece by Mendelssohn, I suspect the answers would not extend much beyond the Violin Concerto, Fingal’s Cave, Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Italian Symphony. This is not to be disparaging about Classic FM listeners, because if I were to ask the same question to music students, I doubt many more answers would be added beyond the Scottish Symphony and Elijah, with a few string players feeling bound to mention his remarkable collection of 13 String Symphonies, composed between the ages of 12-14 – music which is often sadly overlooked and underestimated by conductors and programming committees…
I struggled to appreciate Mendelssohn for many years for the same reason I struggled with Haydn and most opera… it’s almost impossible to find recordings that aren’t clinical and safe or entirely self-indulgent. Mendelssohn is a complex character; setting himself apart from contemporaries like Wagner and Liszt by remaining conservatively classical, yet occasionally exploring Romantic expressionism… sometimes proudly Germanic, sometimes exploring and celebrating his experiences of other parts of Europe. A Jew raised an Atheist before becoming a Christian… And yet, for some reason, the majority of performances of Mendelssohn’s best-known music seem to put him in a little box of musical restriction. ‘We’re going to play some Mendelssohn…’, orchestras seem to say, ‘…mainly because people recognize the name on the poster… The music is boring, but it has a certain classical charm to it. It’ll be a nice contrast from the rest of the programme…’
Nobody seems to want to play Mendelssohn because it’s actually blooming good.
Symphony No.5 ‘Reformation’ was composed when Mendelssohn was 21 years old, originally for a celebration of the 300th Anniversary of the Augsberg Confession, an important event in the history of the Protestant Reformation.
The opening D major chorale is a masterclass of orchestration and dramatic control, building to a tense war-like fanfare interspersed with gentle references to what is known as the ‘Dresden Amen’ – a seven-note ‘amen’ setting first used in Dresden before becoming popular across Europe and appearing in works by composers including Wagner, Mahler, Bruckner and Stravinsky. The chorale gives way to a fiery D minor Allegro, often played with too much focus on speed instead of weight and shape, and with cartoonishly exaggerated dynamics that miss the point of Mendelssohn’s subtle dramatacism. The fanfare theme returns to anchor the development section, and with one last pause for breath in the form of another Dresden Amen, the movement careers to a thrilling finale that shows Mendelssohn on par with any of his contemporaries with whom he is so often unfavourably compared.
The second movement is a ‘proper’ scherzo… light and playful, with an opening theme that works as well at a tentative piano as it does at a full-blooded fortissimo and a trio section with such natural elegance and shape that it barely needs conducting.
My only criticism of the third movement is that it is far too short. Coming in at around three-and-a-half minutes, this movement is as good as slow movements can get. Written almost entirely for strings, Mendelssohn takes us on a rollercoaster of melancholy with such ease that the genius can be easily missed. Barely audible grief is punctuated by short-lived threats of mezzo-piano – finally allowing itself to build to a powerful outburst before sinking back to an emotionally exhausted pianissimo. In my opinion, the symphonic world didn’t see such a commanding representation of grief again until Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony in 1937
The fourth and final movement is where I will begin to agree with some of the criticism. Many composers struggled with finales (some of classical music’s greatest works are let down determination to write a good finale getting in the way of actually writing a good finale…). Mendelssohn is no exception, and it often feels like his decision to centre the movement around the Lutheran hymn ‘A Mighty Fortress’ allowed him to jump to a new variation of the chorale when he ran out ideas for the last. This means that decisions must be made in the rehearsal room to find ways to make the movement flow. Nevertheless, Mendelssohn does success in building the chorale up to an almost gothic intensity for a powerful finale that builds drama not with post-Beethovian rhythmic intensity but with pre-Mahlerian sound and space.
Kevin is conducting Mendelssohn's Reformation Symphony with Langtree Sinfonia on 11th November 2023.