As Mendelssohn’s 200th birthday arrives, it seems apt to provide a few more items by this wonderful composer. Thus we have a symphony, and a wonderful bass aria which was much loved by English speaking singers, yet seems sadly neglected now.
Mendelssohn – Son and Stranger – I am a roamer
Gounod – Philemon and Baucis – Vulcan’s song
Matrices WAX 2330-1, 2331-1 (7116/7)
Recorded 7th April 1927
Available from September 1927 to January 1946
Orchestra, A W Leggett
Robert Easton, bass
(mp3 files – right click the link, then select “Save as” or click the play button)
The Mendelssohn plays in C major at 80rpm, the Gounod in A minor (a semitone below score pitch).
This recording was reviewed in The Gramophone, September 1927:
Robert Easton. – The two records on this disc present a singular contrast – the same fine bass voice in both pieces, but a difference of style and effect that is simply astonishing. It is, however, no mystery, no problem beyond solution. The singer knows how to make every point in I’m a roamer. He gets away with it from the starting-gate, and from that point is a winner as well as a roamer – tone, rhythm, words, humour, everything pat and perfect to the finish. With Vulcan’s Song it is otherwise. Here too slow, there too fast; now too deliberate and heavy; nearly always too lugubrious – the true significance of Vulcan’s allusive remarks and the satire of his own ugliness and deformity, showing what a mistake it is for him to quit Venus and his own fireside to go on nocturnal adventures – the humour of all this is utterly lost, thanks partly, perhaps, to the fatuity of the English translation. That, I suppose, is why Santley always insisted on singing this song in French.
Mendelssohn – Symphony No.4 in A major Op.90 “Italian”
Vivaldi – Olimpiade – Andante
Decca AK 1974-7
Matrices AR 11730-1, 11731-1, 11732-1, 11733-1, 11734-1, 11735-1, 11736-1, 11737-2
(These are zip files – left click the link, download the files, then unzip when downloaded)
I. Allegro vivace (2 sides)
II. Andante con moto (1½ sides)
III. Con moto moderato (1½ sides)
IV. Finale: Saltarello-Presto (2 sides)
Turin Symphony Orchestra, Mario Rossi
This recording received a detailed review in The Gramophone, December 1948:
Turin Symphony Orchestra (Mario Rossi): Symphony No. 4 in A major, Op. 90, “Italian” (Mendelssohn); Andante from “L’Olimpiade” (Vivaldi arr. Mortari). Decca AK1974-7 (12 in., 27s. 4d.).
I cannot imagine why Decca have decided to withdraw the Unger version in six months’ time in favour of this new one. It is true that Unger took the first movement rather deliberately and was altogether too perfunctory about the Andante; but he was well recorded, and on points his version wins hands down over this new competitor. Perhaps the idea was that it would be interesting to have an Italian orchestra playing a work which owed all its inspiration to Italy – for this is not one of your made-up titles stuck on afterwards by a publisher. Mendelssohn had started off at the age of 25 for an extended tour of Austria, Italy and Switzerland, and his sketches and letters vividly record the impressions made on his naturally vivacious mind: in 1831 he wrote from Rome, “The Italian Symphony makes rapid progress: it will be the gayest piece I have yet composed, especially the last movement. I have not yet made up my mind about the Adagio (sic), and think I shall reserve it for Naples.” He finished the work on his return home, and conducted the first performance himself in 1833 for a concert of the Philharmonic Society of London. The curious thing is that this symphony, for all its seeming spontaneity and the sunny freshness of its writing, caused Mendelssohn exceptional difficulty, and right up to the year of his death he was still considering making alterations to it.
W.R.A., writing of the recent Barbirolli recording of the Italian, said that it achieved “high clarity at the expense of warmth.” Here almost the reverse is true: there is plenty of spirit, even if the orchestra is not particularly well disciplined, but far greater definition, both of playing and recording, is necessary. Rossi starts off at an impetuous speed; the woodwind repeated chords are a mere indistinct background; the strings, when they enter with their exuberant tune, skitter over the quavers and clip the rhythm. It is all, clearly, just too fast for the players’ comfort: phrases are snatched, and there is frequently little continuity of the melodic line. But there is interesting perspective and plenty of vitality. If the staccato string passage leading to the second subject is untidy, the second subject itself is treated with the most delicious lightness and grace. It is a pity that the exposition is not repeated: it is becoming a bad habit to alter Mendelssohn’s carefully-calculated proportions by cutting the repeat.
After the first movement the rot begins to set in. The Andante is played sympathetically, but (especially at the end) oh! so slowly. This seems to have depressed the orchestra so much that it plays the third movement without much conviction, and the Trio is dreary in the extreme – it is taken very slowly, the horns ignore the phrasing (which is clearly marked in bar-lengths), and the violins’ dancing figure is laborious and leaden-footed. By contrast, in the Saltarello, the Roman carnival seems to have gone to the players’ heads, and the rhythm is none too stable (notice how the woodwind soloists jump their fourth beats at letter C, side 7). This movement certainly cannot compare with Unger’s version.
The fill-up is interesting: a gracious elegiac Andante from one of the 38 operas of Vivaldi, the red-headed priest on whose music Bach drew so much. L’Olimpiade, one of Metastasio’s most popular libretti, was set by about a dozen composers, and Vivaldi’s opera was revived in 1939 at the Siena Festival.
The LP issue was reviewed briefly in The Gramophone, September 1950:
*MENDELSSOHN. Symphony No. 4 in A major, Op. 90, “The Italian.” Turin Symphony Orchestra (Mario Rossi). Decca LX3004 ( 10 in., 29s. 6d.).
In December, 1948, my colleague L.S. devoted nearly a column to a review of the 78 version or this symphony. He wrote with no great enthusiasm, and I agree with all his strictures. Indeed, as a whole, it is a poor performance, and therefore I cannot understand why Decca has bothered to issue it on L.P. There is certainly no improvement in the quality of the recording. L.S. said that “far greater definition, both of playing and recording, is necessary.” It still is. R.H.