Symphony 1 in C minor (op.11, 1824)
My version: Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Masur (Teldec, 1990, 26 min)
An astonishing confident work for a 15 years old composer - who had already composed 12 symphonies for string orchestra only, to exercise his skills. The opening Allegro di molto is as expected with this composer melodic, though with a clear influence still of Weber. Hints of the Midsummer night dream music, but also some foreshadowing of the famous Italian symphony. The Andante puts elegance ahead of passion in a way that is not in line with the romantic ideals - more in line with the classical musical philosophy. A scherzo-like Menuetto follows, in which Mendelssohn shows more originality than in the first two movements. The final Allegro, with a wonderful moving part for clarinet over pizzicato strings, rounds off a work that may not be remembered as one of the essential romantic symphonies, but which deserves to be heard.
Symphony 5 in D minor "Reformation" (op.107, 1832)
My version: Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Masur (Teldec, 1990, 29 min)
Although numbered #5, this was his second, and one that he was so dissatisfied with that he did not allow publication of the score. The opening is slow, turning to fast (andante/allegro con fuco), revolving around the sequence of notes known as the Dresden Amen, with fanfares and string frenzies battling for our attention - almost as a very light version of Bruckner. The scherzo (Allegro Vivace) comes next against conventional wisdom, but it is very effectively placed. A quirky mixture of light hearted feelings and march-like rhythms, this is the best movement of his first two symphonies. The short Andante serves as an introduction for the final, based on the hymn Ein' feste Burg ist under Gott, from which the work got its subtitle. Its strength (the recognizable melody) is also its potential downfall, but Mendelssohn manages to keep it interesting throughout its 8 minutes, although the lackluster finale is somewhat disappointing. All in all, another well-crafted and interesting symphony, but not quite a step-up in quality from the first overall.
Symphony 4 in A major "Italian" (op.90, 1833)
My version: Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Solite (Decca, 1986, 30 min)
Mendelssohn himself considered this the jolliest piece he had ever written, and indeed, right from the exuberant opening bars of the Allegro Vivace, the sun shines through this symphony as befits its nickname. The Andante is somewhat more restrained - it was actually inspired by a religious procession the composer witnessed in Naples. Given the nature of the final movement, a scherzo would have been quite ineffective, so Mendelssohn opted for a graceful and charming Minuet as third movement. The Saltarello final movement incorporates dance figurations from the Roman saltarello and the Neapolitan tarantella, and closes out this delightful symphony in the optimistic style that is so characteristic of this work. One of the highlights of the romantic symphonic repertoire.
Symphony 2 in B flat major "Lobgesang" (op.52, 1840)
My version: Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Masur with Bonney, Wiens, Schreier and the Rundfunkchor Leipzig (Teldec, 1989, 59 min)
This was actually the very first numbered symphony composed after Beethoven's ninth to use the human voice, unless we include Berlioz' hybrid Romeo et Juliette symphonic drama. Its structure is unique: a three part orchestral Sinfonia followed by nine parts for orchestra and soloists or choir. The first movement of the Sinfonia immediately introduces the main theme, the chorale Let every living creature praise the lord, with a series of variations on it. The scherzo-like Allegretto is an elegant interlude with the subsequent solemn Adagio religioso paving the way to the vocal parts. This Sinfonia is accomplished music, as expected, but a far cry from the beauty of the Italian and Scottish symphonies. Then the voices join the orchestra for the remaining 36 minutes, a moment I feared when I played this CD again. You see, I am in the minority who considers the vocal part of Beethoven's ninth absolutely awful - for me, Mahler was the first to really skillfully integrate the human voice into the orchestral symphonic sound scape. Mendelssohn tries, and for what it's worth, I think he does better than Beethoven, but still..... for me the whole is definitely not better than the parts, and this might as well have been published as a separate symphony and cantata. And unfortunately, neither part really impresses me.
Symphony 3 in A minor "Scottish" (op.56 1842)
My version: Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Solite (Decca, 1986, 40 min)
Although its first sketches date back to 1830, this Scotland-inspired masterpiece was the final symphony that Mendelssohn completed. Right from the start, the 16 minutes opening movement (Andante con moto - Allegro un poco agitato) engulfs the listener in some of the most beautiful and moving melodies written between Schubert and Mahler, whilst also conveying a feeling of strength as befits the rugged landscape that inspired it. Unusually for that time, Mendelssohn follows up with a short Scherzo as second movement, a delightful jaunty movement based on a distinctly Scottish sounding theme. The following restrained and solemn Adagio features some of the most moving music he ever composed, and in some ways foreshadowing Bruckner. The upbeat Finale introduces one sterling melody after the other in a contrapuntal feast. One of the ten best symphonies of all time for me, and a jewel of the romantic era.
Summarizing recommendation, based on my own taste:
Hors concours: Symphony 3
Essential: Symphony 4
Good to have: Symphonies 1,5
Not required: Symphony 2