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

This is my first experience with LSO Live’s “pure audio” Blu-ray/SACD package and it is impressive.

I have had great fun comparing the purely audio Blu-ray with the SACD — albeit in two channels — and watching the video of the actual concert from which this recording was taken. I did not detect any audio difference between the SACD and the BD/A.

The programme starts off with a performance of the Hebrides Overture that has real character. I don’t think I have ever heard a better one. Clearly Gardiner finds more in the work than Claudio Abbado did in his more subdued account with the same orchestra on an admirable collection of Mendelssohn overtures (DG). Gardiner employs more rubato and emphasizes the dramatic elements to a greater degree. There is a beautiful clarinet solo and then duet around the 7:20 mark, where the tempo is slowed and the atmosphere created is very touching.

The Scottish Symphony, which comes last on the programme, is similarly well performed. Here, though, I have a few reservations, some of which may have more to do with the acoustics of the Barbican or, at any rate, with the recorded sound itself. At points throughout the symphony when the orchestra is playing at full force, the sound can become clotted and harsh. My favourite version of this work has been, and remains, that by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (Warner). Harnoncourt’s performance is very sympathetic and he makes his points less vehemently, yet there is never a sense of dullness. In the first movement Gardiner is more blustery, but I like the way he whips up steam at the end. In the second movement, though, there is no contest as far as I am concerned. Harnoncourt is pure perfection, light as a feather and not too fast. Next to him, Gardiner sounds rushed and punchy. When the whole orchestra is playing out, it is rather bombastic, if exciting. The third movement finds them much closer in spirit. I especially liked the presence of the strings’ pizzicati, and the horns are wonderful in the march-like sections — more so than in the second movement or, surprisingly, in the hymn at the end of the symphony. Gardiner takes the last movement at a real lick and his extra drama pays off here. Harnoncourt’s horns, however, really shine at the end of the work, whereas Gardiner’s are more blended with the rest of the orchestra. Again the sound is likely a major factor here. Gardiner certainly knows his way around this symphony, and I have been greatly impressed by his earlier accounts of the Italian and Reformation Symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic (DG). He really blew away the cobwebs from the latter, leaving any Victorian pomposity far behind.

There have been so many fine performances of the Schumann Piano Concerto that it is difficult to be wholly charitable when a new one comes along that basically does not reveal anything unusual. This one does, but in a most unexpected place: Andrew Marriner’s added clarinet runs in the first movement. Simon Thompson also notes these in his review of the disc. I compared this account with two of the very best in my opinion: Eugene Istomin’s with Bruno Walter and Murray Perahia’s with Sir Colin Davis — both Sony/CBS. With Istomin/Walter there is total rapport between pianist and conductor and they interpret the concerto with eloquence and simplicity. The Perahia/Davis is perhaps warmer and more Romantic, but also conductor and pianist are as one. I did not get this impression as much with Pires and Gardiner. Pires seems reserved and poetic, while Gardiner can be brusque and blustery. It is not a bad performance. It’s just that there is so much competition. As to those clarinet solos, they do not appear on either of my favourite accounts or on any other with which I am familiar. Did Marriner “compose” them himself? I realize it’s the fashion these days to add ornamentation to Baroque and Classical works — for example, David Zinman’s Beethoven — but the clarinet runs here seem more than mere ornamentation. They work for me and do not detract in any way — if only they were by Schumann.

I got a more favourable impression of Pires’ Schumann from her short encore on the video portion of the Blu-ray. She plays the Vogel als Prophet selection from the Waldszenen and it is delightful. The video itself is fine with many close-ups of orchestra members — individuals and sections — often from side views and of just hands on keys or strings as the case may be. Gardiner is not short-changed either. I was taken aback a bit at first by violinists and violists standing throughout the symphony, but Simon Thompson in his review confirmed that this was Mendelssohn’s own practice in Leipzig.

Overall, I am very glad to have heard and seen these performances. I know I shall return to the Hebrides Overture again and will also watch the video, which for me is the best way to appreciate this concert.

Leslie Wright

Previous reviews: David Barker, Geoffrey Molyneux and Simon Thompson