Mendelssohn Symphonies BernsteinFelix Mendelssohn – Symphonies No 3 (“Scottish”) & No. 4 (“Italian”)

Israel Philharmonic Orchestra
Leonard Bernstein, conductor

Deutsche Grammophon, 1979 (2009)

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This recording collects two of the works that composer Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy conceived during his European tour in 1829 and 1831, the Symphony No 3 in A minor, better known as “Scottish” Symphony, and the Symphony No 4 in A major, or “Italian” Symphony.

It was a visit to the ruins of Holyrood Palace, «the palace were Queen Mary lived and loved», that inspired Mendelssohn with «the beginning of my “Scottish” Symphony», as he wrote in a letter to home (in which he included also a sketch of the opening theme), but it took thirteen years before the composition was done – the last of Mendelssohn’s five symphonies to be completed – and for that time the initial inspiration had been overcome by new needs, although some folk elements are still recognizable. The symphony premiered in Berlin in 1842 under Mendelssohn’s direction and was dedicated to Queen Victoria after the English premiere, which took place three months later.

In a letter to his sister, Mendelssohn describes his “Italian” Symphony as «the jolliest piece I have ever done, especially the last movement» and reflects in its score the warm of «the balmy air of a southern clime», as Julius Benedict stated. It was inspired by the Italian sojourn of 1830 and premiered at the London Philharmonic Society in 1833 under the composer’s conduction. The symphony enjoyed wide success, but Mendelssohn was not completely satisfied with it and he revised it the following year and never published it in his lifetime. The first print appeared, posthumously, in 1851.

The symphony has some connections with contemporary music (the slow movement reveals its dependence on the Marche des pèlerins from Berlioz’s Harold en Italie), with poetry (Goethe’s poem Lilis Park has probably inspired the third movement) and folklore (the Saltarello possibly reminds of the saltarellos Mendelssohn heard in Rome and Naples, mixed with a tarantella).

Leonard Bernstein performs the two symphonies with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in this recording released in the late Seventies. Both symphonies are characterized by a certain moderation and, if on the one hand the measured approach does not prevent the music from flowing with precision and allows to express vivacity and joy, on the other it restrains somehow the impetus.

It may be surprising that this affects more the “Italian” that the “Scottish” symphony. The latter is not performed as a Romantic work, if the term “Romantic” refers to the expression of the gloomiest and most turbulent feelings, but it is rather a glorious work where the dominant mood seems to be joy, expressed with the beautiful, sparkling colours of the orchestra, which Bernstein leads through the wideness of the first movement to the moderate but still compelling Vivace non troppo, to the enchanting Adagio and finally to the triumphal Allegro vivacissimo.

The “Italian” Symphony is more restrained, although Bernstein does not miss any occasion to highlight vivacity and wit. The “Italian” is a carefree symphony with some hints of genuinely Mediterranean laziness that are less accentuated in the delightful Allegro vivace but that characterize the next two movements. The finale, Saltarello, is a return to the previous liveliness, but also here there is the cautious stressing of the accents rather than frenzy and excessive speed (as it happens to hear) with a result more striking than ever.

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