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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Overture: Ruy Blas, Op. 95 (1839) [7:17]
Overture: Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, Op. 27 (1828) [11:48]
Symphony No. 5 in D major, Op. 107 Reformation’(1829-32) [28:04]
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir John Eliot Gardiner
rec. live, Barbican, London, 23 March 2014 (Ruy Blas), 2 October 2014
LSO LIVE LSO0775 BD-A/SACD [47:09]

When I reviewed the first disc in what appears to be a series, I reacted favorably to Gardiner’s performances of Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony and Hebrides Overture. I also expressed my admiration for the conductor’s earlier accounts of the composer’s Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5 with the Vienna Philharmonic on DG. The main drawback on the LSO disc was the sound as recorded in London’s Barbican. I fear the same liability is present here. However, that recording was redeemed by its full programme and additional video presentation of the concert from which the works were taken. This time the discs contain very short measure and no video. There is an SACD and audio Blu-ray, as was also the case on the previous issue.

As far as the performances themselves are concerned, Gardiner continues to show an affinity for Mendelssohn. This is especially true of the two overtures. I used Claudio Abbado’s fine accounts with the London Symphony (DG) for my comparison, as I had done on the previous review. The energy Gardiner brings to these performances is infectious. As before, he largely eschews vibrato in the strings and here I have a slight preference for the Abbado versions. On the other hand, the delightful woodwind parts—at times downright chortling—come off better under Gardiner in both overtures. I particularly like Gardiner’s robust and dramatic Ruy Blas Overture even if the sound of the orchestra when playing at full throttle can be rather vehement and brusque. As to the Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, Abbado does “calm” very well with the flute solo especially lovely and the strings succulent. Gardiner, on the other hand, takes the listener on a more exciting “voyage” and the shining trumpets and crisp timpani at the voyage’s end are really triumphant. Abbado’s trumpets are also excellent, but his timpani as recorded are rather boomy. So, if “all’s well that ends well,” I will go with Gardiner’s account for this overture.

My favorite modern recording of the ‘Reformation’ Symphony has been the Vienna Philharmonic performance with Gardiner noted above. Not since Paul Paray’s old recording with the Detroit Symphony on Mercury had I actually enjoyed a performance of the work until Gardiner’s came along. There he swept away all the Victorian cobwebs and made the symphony sound fresh. His conception of the work has not changed much since his 1997 Vienna recording, but what a difference the orchestra and recording in the wonderful acoustic of Vienna’s Musikverein made in realizing the interpretation. The new LSO account starts well enough even with the nearly vibrato-less strings, and the brass/wind chorale is beautifully prepared. All the same, as soon as the music becomes loud the sound takes on an unwelcome forcefulness and bluster. This does not happen on the Vienna recording where the strings are sweeter and the climaxes majestic without being overly heavy or harsh.

Gardiner takes the Allegro vivace second movement at quite a lick in both performances. Where the Vienna Philharmonic is light and breezy, the LSO sounds urgent and short on joy. The third movement Andante is taken at a nice, flowing tempo in both recordings and there is little to choose between them. Gardiner employs a bit of portamento this time around and the flute and bassoon solos are especially nice. The finale proves the most problematic largely due to the Barbican recording, but also to a certain bullishness on Gardiner’s part. The Vienna recording has plenty of power without pomposity, and Gardiner brings the work to its rousing conclusion with the underpinning timpani clear and incisive. With the LSO one is glad for the symphony to be over after a hectoring ‘Ein’ feste Burg’ and timpani that create just a sonic blur. So, there is no contest as to which recording of the symphony I prefer. I also compared the SACD (in two channels only) to the Blu-ray and found no appreciable difference in the sound. I had to set the volume control ever so slightly higher for the Blu-ray to equal the level of the SACD.

Leslie Wright

Previous review: Simon Thompson



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