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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Symphony No. 1, Op. 11 in C minor (1824) [31:03]
Symphony No. 3, Op. 56 in A minor Scottish (1829/1842) [38:40]
Netherlands Symphony Orchestra/Jan Willem de Vriend
rec. 3-6 December 2012 (No. 1) and 18-20 November 2013, Muziekcentrum, Enschede, Holland

Volume 1 of this set of Mendelssohn's symphonies was reviewed by John Quinn with a mixture of admiration and exasperation. I have a similar point of view when it comes to the Beethoven symphony cycle from this quarter, finding niggling frustrations with some discs and raving about others. Whatever Jan Willem de Vriend does it tends to be interesting and is invariably high on quality, so I had no qualms about leaping into this already unfolding Mendelssohn set.

Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 1 is a youthful but startlingly inventive work, the first movement tackled with muscular energy by De Vriend and the NSO. The second movement is gently poetic and phrased beautifully, the contrast between this and the noble pose of the Menuetto tacked head on. The more mysterious sections further on in this movement give it a forward-looking feel, taking its cue from Beethoven but generating magical textures all of its own. The final Allegro con fuoco displays tight-knit virtuosity from the strings in the opening. They maintain their attractive glossy sound throughout, even when the full orchestral drama is at its height.

In a nutshell, this is an excellent performance, rich in sound while clean of line - the Historically Informed aspect of De Vriend's interpretation delivering majesty and elegance as well as a compact lightness of touch. The same is true of the Symphony No. 3, the mixture of old-world pungency and modern instrument dynamics proving very attractive indeed. The opening chorale and its manipulations works very well, drawing us into a musical chamber filled with fascinations, each section with its own little story to tell. The booklet notes have some intriguing insights into De Vriend's views on Mendelssohn, in part his neglect in today's concert programmes, but more importantly about personal qualities such as his boundless energy, something which comes out in these scores, as well as "the utter bliss of the beauty of velvet gloves" - details which De Vriend has absorbed and taken to his every sense in order to communicate Mendelssohn's music with as much understanding and empathy as possible.

These qualities; that 'whoosh' certainly creates an exhilarating feeling in these performances: by no means taking away from the moments of quiet and tenderness, but always carrying us forward on a wave of creative joy. The Scherzo always reminds me of Dvořák in its jaunty theme, and this performance exudes vibrancy and galloping momentum. The Adagio cantabile has that quality of underlying funereal weltschmerz to keep us grounded, even though the lighter cantabile themes hold an innocence and radiance which always shines through. The finale is pacey and lively though Mendelssohn's thematic distinctiveness is less in evidence in this movement. There is a magical moment from about 6:30 which seems to anticipate Mahler, and the final maestoso is impressive.

There are plenty of recordings of these works around, and the temptation to make endless comparisons is ever present. I wouldn't seek to confuse by trotting out reams of examples, but if budget is a consideration then you could do far worse than seeking out the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra conducted by Kurt Masur (review). These recordings have plenty of that verve and freshness of energy, though the winds and timpani have less individual character and the sense of keenly observed detail is stronger with De Vriend. Another comparable set might be that from the Philharmonia with Walter Weller on Chandos CHAN10224-26X. Weller is more inclined to linger in the slow movements, and he doesn't attempt to make his orchestra sound smaller, the richness of the Chandos sound an antidote to the more clearly defined detail from the Challenge engineers. Weller's is more of a cycle to be relaxed to in a warm bath rather than on the edge of your seat - Rolls Royce rather than Formula 1.

With classics such as this it pays to shop around a little online to see which kind of approach attracts the most. Out of those I've heard over the years I like Jan Willem de Vriend's because, to quote a famous advert, it reaches the parts others don't. Listen again to the opening of that Adagio cantabile from the Symphony No. 3, and hear how each detail of dynamic is drawn out and caressed, how each layer of orchestration is balanced so that you are barely aware of certain elements, but how each part also makes its contribution like the voices in a play. These investigations into the essence of Mendelssohn's genius is where we find it at its most invigorating and inspiring. With the superb SACD sonics on offer here you can enjoy these symphonies to the full while digging in as deeply as you like, unearthing ever more about works you might never have considered worth such close scrutiny.

Dominy Clements

Masterwork Index: Mendelssohn symphonies