Die 12 Jugendsinfonien. Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/ Kurt Masur. archive 2722 006
It seems that the Romantics are now archaic. Well. it happens to us all. These string symphonies are the first 19th-century works to emerge from the archives into Archive. Despite the title they number not 12 but 14 (including another single movement for strings and a revised arrangement of no. 8 for wind, strings and percussion). They were also written between 12 and 14. Each is a marvellous symbol of genius in its buoyant boyhood: a humming-top of sound, a Momentum Musical. They sound together like a Wunderkind’s almost derisively exultant answer to such adult questions as “Continue this theme for several hundred bars scored for strings divisi ad lib. modulating through the following keys... and making extensive use of such devices as sequence and counterpoint”.
The style is much as one might expect from a great-grandpupil of Bach (via Zelter and Kirnberger), with a dash of Italian in the high spirits (Zelter had a taste for Rossini). More important perhaps is their formative influence on Mendelssohn himself. Every so often the boy's voice breaks through the classical mask in its own persona, hinting at hidden expressive features. In no. 11 for example the (surely deliberate) echo of the farewell terzettino from Così fan tutte is intermingled with regretful sighing; while absence on a journey in Switzerland is no doubt symbolized by the use of folksong themes.
Such quasi-pictorial ideas must have been innate. They are interestingly paralleled by some 40 contemporary sketches of the Swiss scene; and they pre-date the acknowledged influence of Hegelian aesthetic. They can be heard in these symphonies being poured out lavishly into a classical mould, and becoming set in their ways; arguably the wrong ways.
Like the other abundant first-fruits of 1820-3 (including four operas, four concertos, three quartets etc), this music is understandably somewhat underripe. It is also decidedly sharp, by normal standards; this set is not designed for those who enjoy improvising their own piano continuo, or who have absolute pitch. But otherwise the flavour, well-preserved in these transparently crisp and clean performances, will surely please most listeners and captivate many. The booklet and notes (by Hellmuth Christian Wolff) are also just right for Mendelssohn: authoritative, graphic.
The Musical Times, Feb. 1973 (p. 152)© the estate of eric sams