Mendelssohn String Symphony no. 3 in E minor

performed by the Amsterdam Sinfonietta under Lev Markiz, or below by the Northern Chamber Orchestra under Nicholas Ward


Here we are at our third and final string symphony for the week, digging into early Mendelssohn stuff. Number three is the first in a minor key, and this simple detail gives it more perceived weight, as well as a more baroque-sounding feel. Of course, as you’ve heard, Mendelssohn loves his counterpoint and rich string stuff, and this one is no different.

The exposition is less than a minute long, and repeats to give us the bulk of the first movement. It’s played sweepingly fast, marked in common time but played so fast as to be in cut time, essentially, at least in Markiz’s recording. The sound is rich, dense, almost a bit too busy… but masterfully crafted, maybe just a bit too ornate for my taste. It’s almost opulent. I don’t know if this is even really a legit sonata form movement. There are two repeated halves, the beginning of the second seeming to function as a development, and there are spots where it seems light we might end in a major key, but we finish, abruptly, still in E minor.

The first movement is the longest of this less-than-nine-minute symphony, and the second is a welcome break from the speed and density of the opening movement. This is a movement where I feel like I can appreciate the composer’s gift and skill in composing without being beaten over the head by it. It’s short, light, almost ethereal, a bit shadowy, and a nice place to take a breather. Not like this work is heavy or intense or anything… it’s just a much slower, lighter pace than the first movement.

We’re already at the end, now, with an allegro in common time. It’s got the brisk, lively, baroque-classical (baroclassical?) sinuous nature of the first movement, but not as tiring. The two do have some similarities, though, and there are some moments to treasure here, where the generally lighter, nimble string work builds to some thicker climaxes with the full orchestra, as close to a roar as I imagine we would get from this composer in this era, and then suddenly ending almost cheekily, quietly, suddenly.

I don’t really have much to say about this piece… I feel like the extensive and constant use of contrapuntal textures and development and sense of motion is well-intentioned, and obviously exquisitely executed, but that it’s a bit like salt in a dish: a little is great, but it can go a long way, and make something really outstanding inedible if overused. Also, people’s palates are different; I have a very high tolerance for salt content, so I rather enjoy saltier foods, but others not. To think that a young 12-year-old would go into his room or the study and throw this stuff down on paper and have it performed for a family gathering or some event is almost shocking, and a little bit disgusting. But what I don’t  find in a work like this is much passion or emotion, and maybe Bach or Brahms or Mendy himself would be appalled at that statement. While it (I’ll say again) is expertly-crafted counterpoint, I feel it isn’t much more than that. It isn’t (yet) a means to an end. I have described the earliest Mozart symphonies as homework assignments, but at least he does have some whimsy and playfulness in his juvenile works, even if he wasn’t as blisteringly talented as young Felix (which is a thought to munch on).

In any case, we won’t get to the other nine string symphonies this week (or likely any time soon), but a quick look at three of them (in total all 12 written in only three years or so) shows us what the composer started with, and where he went with it (which, again, some might argue is not far). Tomorrow, we’ll be moving forward a bit and seeing how this mastery of counterpoint and all that can be put to use in a more large-scale setting, and with greater …. finesse? See you then.

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