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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Overture, The Hebrides [10:01]
Symphony No. 3 Scottish [37:48]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Piano Concerto [31:28]
Maria Joćo Pires (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra/John Eliot Gardiner
rec. live, Barbican, London, January 2014
BD-A, Blu-Ray video and Hybrid SACD included in package
LSO LIVE LSO0765 SACD/BD-A [79:17]

After Gergiev's (in my view unsuccessful) performance of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, this is the second in LSO's new bumper package of concert discs. Each gives us the same programme on a Hybrid SACD, a BD-A and a BD film of the concert. It's a treat to have such largesse at no extra cost and, while I welcomed the innovation for the Berlioz, I said that it is to be hoped that LSO Live will repeat the experiment with a more successful performance. They have done so here.

To get the technical elements out of the way first, the BD-A sound is excellent. Listening in DTS, everything comes across with brightness and clarity, without any sense of fog. The engineers have done a great job of capturing what should come out of each speaker, though I might have wanted a bit more presence from the surround speakers. However, the bass is rich without dominating and the overall experience is very good indeed. They have also solved the problem of very low recording level that marred Gergiev’s Berlioz performance on the stereo CD: this time around it felt much better. The accompanying video of the concert is very flashily produced with excellent picture and sound. You even get a bonus on the video (Pires' encore, a number from Schumann's Waldszenen) that you get on neither CD or BD-A.

The performances are all very good. Gardiner has a very winning way with The Hebrides. It unfolds naturally in his hands, with a nod to the undulation of the waves but with violent passion to the storm sequence. The orchestra's string tone is delightful, too. There's a particularly attractive edge to the cellos when they play their second theme in such a beautiful major key toward the end of the recapitulation.

As when I heard Gardiner conduct this symphony in Leipzig, he gets the violins and violas to stand throughout, which I have since discovered was Mendelssohn's own practice at the Gewandhaus. That takes authenticity to a whole new level, I suppose, though who knows whether it increases confidence any more than it increases fatigue. The performance itself is very good, though. The winds are plangent for the lament of the opening and the strings respond with minimal vibrato, heightening the mood of intense concentration. An effective sense of swirl takes over once the main Allegro begins, and the agitato direction feels very real. I also loved the way he uses the timpani to punctuate delicately rather than to dominate. This adds to the sense of a reading that has been carefully considered. The Vivace second movement has an exhilarating swirl to it, and the vibrato-less strings of the slow movement add a really expressive edge to the main theme. The finale, too, has a pleasing sense of the Scotch snap and it builds pleasingly to a wonderful peroration. The orchestra's playing matches Gardiner’s vision very well indeed and, in fact, it is high but well deserved praise to put this version alongside the LSO’s excellent. if rather different, performance of this symphony for Abbado on DG.

Maria Joćo Pires brings her famously expressive playing style to Schumann’s Piano Concerto and this makes her an ideal partner in this work. She listens every bit as much as she plays, and this means that the work sounds even more thoughtful than usual. Her treatment of the first theme, after the opening flourish, sounds like a participant in a conversation, and her cadenza sparkles in a way that is never showy. She also brings just the right amount of flourish to the main theme of the finale, with a sense of elation setting in as the finish line comes into view. Gardiner, too, conducts with a real ear for detail, bringing inner textures to light in a very refreshing manner. Listen, for example, to the little moment towards the end of the first movement’s exposition when the solo clarinet dreamily plays with the main theme (beginning around 2:33 into track two): a few extra notes are included in the descent which I have never heard before. I wonder whether that’s musical archaeology bringing something new to light, or Gardiner simply encouraging the musicians to bring something new to the familiar score? Either way, it worked for me, and it’s typical of the sensitivity with which Gardiner brings this score to light.

I was delighted to read that this is to be the first volume in a series exploring the complete Mendelssohn symphonies with Gardiner on the LSO. Unlike Gergiev’s touted Berlioz series, I can’t wait for the next instalment of this one.

Simon Thompson
Previous review: David Barker (Recording of the Month October 2014)

Masterwork Index: Mendelssohn symphony 3 ~~ Schumann piano concerto