Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25 (1830) [18:13]*
Piano Concerto No. 2 in D minor, Op. 40 (1837) [20:43]*
Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 107 (Reformation) (1828-30) [25:10]
Québec Symphony Orchestra/Louis Lortie *(piano)
rec. Salle Raoul-Jobin, Palais Montcalm, Québec, April 2009
ATMA CLASSIQUE ACD2 2617 [64:14]

A number of pianists over the years - Daniel Barenboim, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Murray Perahia - have made a specialty of directing Mozart piano concertos from the keyboard. This procedure ensures a unified interpretation, and the music's clean, straightforward lines permit a competent orchestra to keep itself more or less together while the pianist is otherwise occupied. What arm-waving the soloist can manage during the ritornellos probably won't hurt anything, at least. In the cases of Ashkenazy and Barenboim, at least, such performances helped to launch full-fledged conducting careers.

Applying the same practice to later repertoire, however, is questionable. The rigorously structured Beethoven concertos have proved more or less amenable to such treatment, but in the more intricate textures of early Romantic scores - which don't necessarily sound more complex than Beethoven's - it really helps to have a separate conductor. A pianist-director whose attention is necessarily divided must largely leave the orchestra to tend to its own deportment, relying on the players' expertise and goodwill.

Thus, Louis Lortie's go at the Mendelssohn concertos is a mixed success. The earlier G minor concerto comes off well. The outer movements are labeled Molto allegro con fuoco and Presto respectively, and feature numerous driving, tremolando string phrases, all of which suggests a drama that doesn't always come across in performance. The stereotype of Mendelssohn as a lightweight still flourishes in some quarters. Lortie infuses those movements with a Schumannesque nervous tension, contrasting it with a calm, spacious account of the central Andante movement. As pianist, Lortie's touch is light enough to allow for deft articulation in the passagework, but maintains a sense of weight in reserve for the climaxes, avoiding shallow tone. His voicings in the Andante could be more ambitious - the chording is homogenized - but he guides the phrases musically and sensitively.

The D minor performance is more equivocal: it follows the same broad outlines as its companion, but there are bits that needed more rehearsal, or a separate conductor. The orchestra bangs into the first movement's first tutti with more enthusiasm than precision, and the chords near the end of the piece don't quite land with the impulsive pianist. Lortie adopts a simple, singing manner for the central Adagio, but the grandly expansive climax doesn't fill out as one wants - it feels held back, as if the director were embarrassed by its scale.

Lortie takes over the baton exclusively for the Reformation Symphony. He has a good feel for the score - his reading would go over well in concert - and occasionally evinces an ear for detail: the bass note connecting the third and fourth movements is clearly present, for example, avoiding the usual brief lapse in continuity. Lortie's flowing, cantabile phrasing evokes the right meditative spirit, while his forthright, no-nonsense rhythmic address avoids the whiff of sanctimony that can hover about the score, particularly in the finale with its quotations of the Lutheran chorale Ein' feste Burg. At first, the main section of that movement, beginning at 1:14, sounds hasty, but it settles nicely by the time the chorale resumes at 3:58. Elsewhere, passing ensemble flaws - a nervousness about the tremolo phrases in the first movement, some miscoordination in the pulsing bits of the scherzo - are a distraction.

Overall, the Québec Symphony plays well, far better than on the only other recording of theirs I've heard, a dismal ballet program under Simon Streatfield (CBC). The sonority is full, though it's not a high-octane Philadelphia or Boston sound, and the solo and sectional work is consistently polished.

This is a pleasing and well-performed program, but you could probably do better getting the concertos and the symphony separately. Unfashionably, I've always favored John Ogdon's full-bodied, somewhat over-recorded coupling of the concertos (originally EMI Studio Two, licensed Stateside to the Klavier label); its closest digital counterpart would probably be Stephen Hough's bold, stylish Hyperion accounts. For the Reformation, pre-digital transfers by Maazel (DG), Bernstein (Sony), and von Dohnányi (Decca) still take pride of place, along with the excitable, and exciting, Munch account (RCA), though its early stereo recording sounds faded now.

Stephen Francis Vasta

This is a pleasing and well-performed programme.