Symphony No.3 in A minor, Op.56 Scottish (1829-42) [39:54]
Symphony No.5 in D minor, Op.107, Reformation (1829-30) [29:37]
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Litton
rec. February 2007, Grieg Hall, Bergen, Norway
BIS-SACD-1604 [70:15]

I am new to this series of recordings, but this disc represents the last in a set of three which covers all of Mendelssohn’s symphonies (see review of No. 2), celebrating the 200th anniversary of his birth in 1809.

Both of these works have an easy-sounding and relatively sunny disposition, which hides considerable difficulties in their genesis. Started in 1829 in Scotland, the cover image for this disc is an engraving of the Grass Market in Edinburgh, one of the places Mendelssohn stayed during his trip through what was then considered a romantic wilderness suitable for artistic reflection. The symphony was only completed by 1842 however; some 12 years after the Reformation symphony. The reason for its lower opus number is that Mendelssohn was dissatisfied with the latter work, and refused to allow its publication during his lifetime. As has been stated already, the lightness of touch which has made Mendelssohn such a refreshingly attractive voice among composers of this period is very much in evidence with these symphonies, and Andrew Litton gets excellent results from the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra.

We have heard a few ‘period’ recordings of these pieces in recent years, and a trend towards smaller orchestral footprints from bands such as the Swedish Chamber Orchestra in their Schumann symphonic cycle with Thomas Dausgaard. This recording from BIS does not fall into these categories by any means. This is not to say that Litton’s approach is anything less than supple and idiomatically appropriate, and I know of several quarters which will welcome the warmly expressive strings in the playing here. Vibrato is also a quality in the woodwind, but my hat goes off to all of the Bergen players for impeccable intonation, and to the flute and other woodwinds for their expressive and thankfully non wide-and-wobbly vibrato. The weight of voicing is also very accurately placed at all times, and a superlatively good balance provides both detail and an overall orchestral texture in the tutti sections. This transparency of texture is an inherent quality in Mendelssohn’s orchestral writing, but I also have the feeling that we might owe a debt of gratitude to the kind of clarity obtained by Roger Norrington for his early 1990s recordings on Virgin Classics with the London Classical Players. In this way, Litton’s readings of these pieces fall somewhere between Norrington’s lithe cleanliness and Claudio Abbado’s more emotionally communicative performances captured through the London Symphony Orchestra on Deutsche Grammophon. Yes, Litton is clarity, dynamism and expressively warm playing personified, but he does tend to enhance the classical origins and early romantic context of these pieces. He draws superb results from the Bergen orchestra and brings out all of the rugged Beethovenian character in the Reformation symphony, but does steer an uncontroversial path which while wonderful for repeated listening and reference, may not have you in palpitations of excitement on first hearing.

I’ve read dismissive remarks on these performances as ‘middle of the road’, but extremes of interpretative license are not what we are likely to be looking for in Mendelssohn. He has his pious moments, and high octane passion and emotional hubris are not really ‘hot’ elements in this music, at least not to today’s jaundiced ears. There are some intriguing forward-looking moments as well. Listen to those calm string passages between 2:22 and 3:05 in the first movement of the Symphony No.5: Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question? Not far off, and to my mind such spine-tingling moments lift this recording above the run-of-the-mill. Add the sheer quality of the playing into the mix, and we have a winning combination. The SACD qualities of the recording are a nice enhancement, as usual opening out the aural picture and giving a real sense of location and involvement. Still attempting to put my finger on some marginal reservations, I suppose it might come down to these performances being very much ‘studio’ in nature. Looking at the booklet, I don’t get the feeling that the impassioned photo of Andrew Litton in full action on the back is taken from these sessions or this music. One has a sense that the players might respond with just that extra ‘edge’ with a live audience rather than just the familiar if marvellous acoustic of the Bergen Philharmonic’s home concert hall, but this might as well just be my imagination looking for weaknesses which aren’t really there at all. Conductors and record producers just can’t win can they? Anything other than highly polished performances and we reviewers start moaning about blemishes; and the closer things come to perfection the more we’re likely to hit on a lack of that last nth of emotional content and excitement. Fear not in this case however: if you are looking for ‘perfect’ symphonic Mendelssohn then this disc has to come somewhere near, if not at the very top of the list.

Dominy Clements