Symphony No 3 in A minor (Scottish) Op 56 [36:40]
Symphony No 4 in A major (Italian) Op 90 – Revised version [30:51]
Musikkollegium Winterthur/Heinz Holliger
rec. 6-9 April 2010, Stadthaus, Winterthur

At first sight this is simply yet another version of one of the most obvious, and most satisfactory, of couplings of the works of Mendelssohn. But it is not. The Italian Symphony was first performed in London in May 1833 with considerable success. The composer was however dissatisfied with it and intended a complete revision before performances took place elsewhere in Europe. He had completed revisions of the second, third and fourth movements before his death but the posthumous first European performance of the Symphony which took place in Leipzig in 1849 was of the first version which has continued to be the version normally played. The present recording is of an edition of the revised version by John Michael Cooper published in 2001. There have been other recordings, including one conducted by John Eliot Gardner, but this is my first hearing of the revised work.

I have always thought of the Italian as one of Mendelssohn’s very best works; at once cogent, detailed, exquisite and exuberant; in short, a perfect masterpiece. It is clear that the composer did not share this view. His revision follows the general lines of the original but makes everything more pointed. The omission of the grace-note in the second bar and re-writing of many of the wind lines in the second movement immediately show that he will take nothing for granted. The third movement is made even more graceful, with its two sections melded together even more closely, and the fourth is made even wilder. All in all, a great masterwork is made even greater. The result is even more detailed without losing the amazing overall freshness of the original work.

The performance on this disc has all the transparency and careful balance needed to help the listener to appreciate the changes made by the composer. Better still, this is done without losing the apparent spontaneity which is such a feature of the work in both versions. I have always greatly admired Heinz Holliger as a player for the subtlety and finesse of his phrasing, and it is good to hear that as a conductor he is able to transmit this skill to others. These are imaginative and constantly involving performances at the fast speeds directed by the composer. Perhaps the performance of the Scottish does have at times a somewhat studied feel, but there is always a sense of a vivid musical imagination at work and a total lack of any feeling of routine. Even if you have, as I do, (too) many recordings of the Scottish in your collection this is well worth adding to it, and I cannot express too strongly the excitement I have felt on getting to know the revised version of the Italian in such a excellent and well recorded performance. This is an important and immensely enjoyable disc.

John Sheppard

An important and immensely enjoyable disc.