Sound Souvenirs of Scotland and Italy: Mendelssohn’s Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4

CD Review of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy: Symphonies Nos. 3 & 4 (Pablo Heras-Casado, Freiburger Barockorchester)

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Pablo Heras-Casado. Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4. Recorded with the Freiburger Barockorchester, March 2015. Harmonia Mundi HMC 902228, 2016. CD.

The term “sound souvenir” draws attention to the reciprocal relationship between music and memory – how music can contribute to the recollection of past events and how memory shapes the experience of music in the present (Bijsterveld and Van Dijck 2011). The concept of the sound souvenir is especially helpful for understanding Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphonies No. 3 and 4, both of which began as sketches during his Grand Tour of 1829-1832 but that were not finished until some time later. Through his sketches, Mendelssohn was able to recall his vivid experiences in Scotland and Italy. Yet as time went on and his memories changed, Mendelssohn developed the music in new and unexpected ways. When he later published the two symphonies in 1842 and 1833, respectively, he avoided using descriptive epithets for them, instead stressing their non-programmatic nature. Be that as it may, Pablo Heras-Casado’s marvelous new recording with the Freiburger Barockorchester highlights the energy and excitement of Mendelssohn’s initial impressions of Scotland and Italy, minimizing the composer and listener’s distance from these experiences. Heras-Casado breathes new life into these sound souvenirs.

Born in Spain in 1977, Pablo Heras-Casado became the principal conductor of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s in 2011, where he continues to serve. I first saw Heras-Casado at his Metropolitan Opera debut in 2013, when he conducted Michael Mayer’s production of Rigoletto. I was particularly impressed with his skills as an opera conductor – his ability to give a highly energetic and focused reading of Verdi’s score without detracting attention away from the singers. He has also made a name for himself in the recording world, especially with his award-winning albums of Schubert, Schumann, and Mendelssohn. Heras-Casado has been collaborating with the period-instrument Freiburger Barockorchester since 2011. Though the ensemble is primarily known for its outstanding performances of works from the Baroque and Classical eras, it is now embarking on a new project exploring the German Romantic repertoire (Die neue Romantik – The 19th Century Collection).

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My favorite part of this CD is the last movement of the “Italian” Fourth Symphony. Mendelssohn refers to the movement as a saltarello, which is a fast leaping dance in a triple meter. Mendelssohn’s saltarello is in a quadruple meter but features a great deal of triplet motion. The saltarello dance is the closest thing to being folk material in this symphony, but even here Mendelssohn is more interested in conveying the general atmosphere of the Italian countryside than depicting it in its actuality. The dance has a frantic, obsessive quality that makes it sound more like a memory of some past experience that is ruthlessly pursuing the composer’s imagination. After a fortissimo jolt, the music dies down to pianissimo, and the ethereal woodwind scoring suggests that the memory is still distant in the composer’s mind. The music then grows in intensity until the composer has no choice but to succumb to the full effects of the memory (0:35). At 1:02, the composer experiences some relief and returns to thinking about the present moment, but the obsessive dance music begins to intrude again. During the development-like section (2:04), the composer paces around the room, as thoughts about the past and present collide without a clear outcome. At the end, just when the past seems to be fading, the dance tune returns one last time before the music reaches an ominous cadence. For Mendelssohn and Heras-Casado, this sound souvenir is not some harmless memory of the past but rather threatens to overcome the composer and listener in the present.

Further Reading

Bijsterveld, Karin and José van Dijck. “Introduction.” In Sound Souvenirs: Audio Technologies, Memory and Cultural Practices, edited by Karin Bijsterveld and José van Dijck, 11-24. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2009.

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