Felix MENDELSSOHN (1808-1847)
The Hebrides overture (1830-32) [10:01]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Piano concerto in a minor, op. 54 (1841-45) [31:28]
Symphony 3 Scottish (1842) [37:48]
Maria João Pires (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir John Eliot Gardiner
rec. live, 21 January 2014, Barbican, London.
LSO LIVE LSO0765 SACD/BD-A [79:17]

What a tantalising prospect this was when it appeared on the list of new releases. The three works are among my favourite pieces ... and with such respected artists, especially Sir John Eliot Gardiner, for whom excursions into Mendelssohn are surprisingly rare. Indeed, this seems to be the first recording he has made of all three works.

For Maria João Pires, this is her second recording of the Schumann, the work that first led me into the world of classical music. Her first was with Claudio Abbado on Deutsche Grammophon in 2000, and was reviewed here. I haven’t heard this recording in full, only the brief previews on the DG site. While the movement timings are nearly identical to this new one, what I did hear seemed to me to be a much more restrained performance. The reviewer of the earlier recording dared to suggest that the performance was “lady-like”. Quite what this might connote, I will leave you to contemplate.

My sense of this new performance is that it is an older person’s one, and before I am accused of being ageist, let me explain that I mean that it is a reading formed by life experience. It does not thunder or stomp or show off. The first movement (Allegro affettuoso) takes the affettuoso (“tender and passionate”) as the more important direction. In fact, “tender” was the adjective I had written in my notes, before looking up the exact translation. A highlight of the movement was the prominence given to the conversations between soloist and wind players, much more so than in other versions. The effect is quite delightful – could I suggest that this fits into the overall, scheme of not showing off, and sharing the limelight? The intermezzo is perfect, and perhaps the best I’ve heard. The gentle approach remains, but there is a delicious lightness of touch as well. In fact, where Pires is slower in the first movement than most of the versions I know, here she is slightly faster. It is the final movement (Allegro vivace) where the overall strategy works least well. The majority of performances of this movement seem to be at 10:30 or less: Pires is 11.02. I know of slower, but they don’t work at all. There is a vivacity, but it is a restrained one, if that it is not a contradiction in terms.

Pires is supported by conductor and orchestra magnificently. There is so much life and colour in the orchestral playing, belying the standard thought about Schumann’s treatment of the orchestra. In other circumstances, the gentle approach adopted by Pires might be swamped by a conductor, “doing the Schumann in the normal” way – none of that here.

My gold standard for the Schumann is, and will remain, Murray Perahia with Sir Colin Davis. He finds the ideal balance between bravura and tenderness, but I have enjoyed this somewhat different perspective, and will certainly revisit it.

Having praised the orchestral side of the Schumann so highly, it will come as no surprise that I find the two Mendelssohn works to be absolutely outstanding, revealing details hitherto unnoticed, and creating the changing moods of the Scottish landscape perfectly.

Mendelssohn apparently suffered greatly on his trip to the Isle of Staffa, and the storm sequences in the overture are appropriately violent and raw. As a side note, my trip to Staffa a few years ago was on one of the calmest and sunniest days in recent history, according to the skipper of the boat, so I can only imagine what it must have been like for Mendelssohn.

The Scottish symphony has almost as many recordings as the Italian, but strikes me as being less popular. I suspect there are more concert performances of the sunny Fourth than the more reserved Third. The Scottish is my personal favourite – perhaps influenced by my great affection for the Scottish countryside.

I could go on at length about this Scottish symphony, but the moments of absolute pleasure are too numerous to catalogue here, though I will point out the march and fanfare that open the Adagio – breathtaking. The “gear change” in the final movement where the Holyrood theme returns in a chorale-like glory, is for me, absolutely critical for the success of the whole work. The tempo indication Allegro maestoso assai is treated very different by conductors. Some see the assai as referring to the allegro, and proceeding very rapidly through it. Others see it as emphasising the maestoso, and I see that as the correct interpretation. Until this recording, the best performance of this final section had been Colin Davis in Dresden (Profil PH05048 review) but unfortunately, his opening to this movement was anything but vivacissimo. Sir John succeeds brilliantly in both sections – the opening pages are as close to A Midsummer Night’s Dream as I’ve heard – and the change into the maestoso raises the hairs on the back of my neck. Bravo. I can only envy the audience at the Barbican in January this year who were privileged to hear this live.

I was able to compare these two performances with recent Chandos recordings from Birmingham and Edward Gardner; I can’t help thinking that I should have chosen a different comparison, as the similarities of the conductor’s surnames is making this hard to write. I can concur with my colleagues John France and Simon Thompson, who both praised Gardner’s Hebrides overture highly. The timings are essentially identical, and the only significant difference to me was in the sound of the orchestra – creamy and smooth in Birmingham and slightly edgy in London – which I suspect may be as much to do with the hall acoustics and the sound engineers as the playing.

When it comes to the symphony, Brian Wilson rated the Chandos performance as one of the best, and while I accept it is a good performance, it fails, for me, at the key point in the final movement, where Gardner takes the allegro assai route for the closing pages. I hear little maestoso in it – no neck hair movement here – and for me, that makes it uncompetitive with the Gardiner.

I listened to this as a 16-bit lossless download, and found the sound quality to be quite exceptional. The physical SACD comes with a Blu-ray audio disc – that potentially would be something to behold. I’ve read bad things about the Barbican acoustic – on the evidence of this, it seems unfounded. I’ve never heard so much of the orchestral colour and detail in any other Schumann recording. This was a live recording, in the midst of a very cold London winter, yet there were no extraneous noises at all, and for those who dislike applause at the end of a recording, be assured that there is none. This is apparently the start of a full set of the Mendelssohn symphonies - very good news indeed, and I look forward particularly to No. 2, given Sir John's expertise in choral music.

My anticipation that this might be a special recording has been met. I have awarded it Recording of the Month status, despite slight reservations about the approach to the Schumann, because of the exceptional Mendelssohn.

David Barker

Masterwork Index: Mendelssohn symphony 3 ~~ Schumann piano concerto
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