Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Ruy Blas Overture, Op. 95 (1835) [7:48]
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op.11 (1824) [30:06]
Symphony No. 4 in A, Op. 90 Italian (1833) [28:06]
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Litton
rec. Grieg Hall, Bergen, Norway, August 2007
BIS SACD-1584 [67:09]
The grim, portentous opening brass chord of Ruy Blas suggests that Andrew Litton may finally be coming to grips with the expressive potential of music, moving beyond the glorified traffic direction that has mostly characterized his work thus far. The phrasing is sufficiently directional to generate a fair amount of drama, and midrange melodic phrases for doubled woodwind and strings have an appealing, dusky tone. If the arrival at 2:59 of the "big tune" goes almost unnoticed - Previn on EMI and, particularly, on RCA, subtly marks it off within the forward impulse - and if its working-out and climax seem a bit matter-of-fact, the bustling sense of the piece still comes across.
In the symphonies, Litton unfortunately reverts to his previously established form as a phlegmatic routiner, displaying little feel for orchestral sound or texture, chugging along heedless of the music's expressive or structural requirements. Attacks need more point and precision, and the legato phrases more attentive tapering.
Thus, the C minor's turbulent opening movement, played too consistently "on the string," sounds heavy and melodramatic, though the superior Bergen woodwinds infuse the second theme with real delicacy. In the Andante, the string textures lumber a bit, and the seemingly flowing, "natural" tempo turns out a bit fast for the little scales at 2:29, where there's no time for any expressive inflection. There's some buoyancy to the Menuetto: Allegro molto, a scherzo in all but name; the Trio is spacious, but needs calm, and there's a clumsy agogic ritard returning to the scherzo proper. The finale is routine - the trade-off of string and woodwind fragments at 2:46, for example, lacks real character - but its momentum and drive hold interest: in concert, truth be told, it might still bring down the house.
The playing isn't noticeably more attentive in the Italian Symphony - the first movement is nervous, with the various scampering parts not quite in sync, and the soggy unmarked ritard at 6:55, preceding the recapitulation, is unhelpful. But sheer rhythmic energy helps bring off the performance, though it's hardly comparable with the virtuosic Szell (Sony), the heartfelt Bernstein/New York (Sony), or the firm, solid Colin Davis (originally Philips).
In plain frontal stereo, the sound is good enough, but it impressed me less than I expected, given Bis's audiophile reputation. Then again, a clear, focused recording can hardly be expected when the playing is generalized and diffuse to begin with.
Stephen Francis Vasta 

Generalized and diffuse playing.