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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Overture The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave), Op.26 (1830-32) [10:01]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Piano Concerto in a minor, Op.54 (1841-45) [31:28]
Symphony No. 3 in a minor (‘Scottish’), Op.56 (1842) [37:48]
Maria Joćo Pires (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir John Eliot Gardiner
rec. 21 January 2014, Barbican, London. DSD
Reviewed as 24-bit download with pdf booklet
LSO LIVE LSO0765 SACD [79:17]

The tragic opening of the symphony is portrayed well in Gardiner’s reading. It is taken quite slowly but there is plenty of forward energy and drive when we reach the semiquaver passages. The allegro un poco agitato at the beginning of the main section is very fast and energetic. There is some fine playing here from the LSO, although there is not always total clarity at this speed. The tempo for the second main theme eases appropriately; Gardiner captures the romantic mood here, and there are noteworthy accompanying phrases from the clarinet.

Gardiner’s account is leaner and less romantic in approach than Edward Gardner’s on a recently released Chandos recording with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (with Symphony No.1, CHSA5139 – review). John Eliot Gardiner’s introduction is slower and richer in tone, as is the main body of the movement. He soon speeds up, but at times it all seems a bit heavy going, perhaps because I listened to Gardiner first. The Birmingham performance has more clarity but I was not always convinced by Edward Gardner’s accelerandi and tempo changes and transitions.

After an exciting conclusion from John Eliot Gardiner, the opening slow theme returns before moving into the second movement which, as in Beethoven’s ninth, is a fast and lively affair. The clarinet main theme is played well enough by the LSO player, but I did feel that the string tremolo accompaniment – marked to be played very softly – was a bit too loud to allow for total clarity of the texture. When this theme is played by flutes, oboes and clarinets in unison and later by the strings, the timpani somewhat overpower the theme and the texture seems a bit muddy. So all is very exciting at Gardiner’s speed but I would prefer greater clarity. Edward Gardner adopts an identical speed but there is greater clarity of texture on his recording, though the overall impression is of a heavier sound.

John Eliot Gardiner sets a good tempo for the adagio slow movement, not too slow and always with a sense of forward momentum. He always has a firm sense of the structure and the overall shape of the movements of this symphony. Once again there is fine playing from the LSO here, but with a few passages where the balance is not ideal. Edward Gardner sets an almost identical speed to Gardiner, but Edward’s approach is in a rather more traditionally romantic mood while Gardiner has more punch and attack and rhythmic verve in the explosive fortissimo passages.

The highlight for me in this LSO performance is the finale, marked to be played fast and very lively. John Eliot Gardiner’s speed is very fast indeed and although there are passages which, once again, are not perfectly balanced in texture, it is nevertheless full of excitement but also with subtleties of expression, phrasing and rubato. He controls his many tempo changes pretty well and I particularly liked his transition to the new majestic theme which comes at the end of the work. This closing section is marked allegro maestoso assai and Gardiner changes the mood superbly at this climactic moment in the symphony. Gardiner is thrilling here, but Edward Gardner is a little too quick at this point in the symphony and he fails to capture the maestoso (majestic) feeling. Gardiner and his forces round off the symphony in triumphant style.

I really appreciated John Eliot Gardiner’s attention to every detail of the score markings, but also every phrase has meaning and expression in his interpretation. The Birmingham performance is also very fine, but surprisingly, though a little faster than Gardiner in the finale, it doesn’t feel so. Gardiner is leaner; the strings play with only a little vibrato and he is more sprightly and dance-like in the lighter passages. His way with this symphony gives us so much to think about and enjoy, and I certainly enjoyed hearing it wholeheartedly in spite of the few niggles mentioned earlier. The performance of the Hebrides Overture is also very fine, refreshing and full of character.

Maria Joćo Pires’ first entry seems a little slow in the oft-recorded Schumann Piano Concerto but she soon moves forward, giving way to some beautiful oboe playing and thus setting the melancholic mood of the first movement. She performs the second main theme with some fabulous tone and when the next dramatic entry comes around, she plays effectively. Sometimes the performance of her octave passages seems a bit lumpy and wooden but there are some very attractive touches of expression and musicality in this first movement.

Pires begins the second movement with delicate expression and the short opening phrase is answered with even more musicality by Gardiner and the LSO. On the whole I enjoyed the expressive playing and tone of the orchestral players rather more than the piano soloist. In the finale, too, as she approaches the closing pages, Pires does not have quite enough fire in her belly.

Pires is a top-class player – her recent Onyx recording of Beethoven Pianos Concertos Nos. 3 and 4 has been much praised: Recording of the Month – review – but maybe not in the greatest league in Schumann. The LSO, however, shine here not only collectively, but also as individuals and sectionally, as a world-class orchestra.

This is a fine performance of the Schumann, if somewhat restrained at times, but certainly not on my A-list of recordings of this work. It’s worth hearing, however, for the sake of the fine performance of the Mendelssohn Scottish symphony.

Geoffrey Molyneux

Previous reviews: David Barker ~~ Simon Thompson