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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Overture: Ruy Blas [7:17]
Overture: Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage [11:48]
Symphony No. 5 Reformation [28:04
London Symphony Orchestra/John Eliot Gardiner
rec. live, Barbican, London, March and October 2014
LSO LIVE LSO0775 BD-A/SACD [47:09]

I welcomed warmly John Eliot Gardiner’s LSO recording of Mendelssohn’s Scottish symphony and said that I couldn’t wait for the next instalment in his series. Here it is, and it isn’t disappointing. In fact, it showcases Gardiner’s forensic method of working and his very good relationship with the LSO.

The two overtures are extremely successful. Ruy Blas is bitingly dramatic. Its brooding, ominous opening speaks clearly to the mood of Hugo’s drama with its suspensions and eerie chords, and the allegro that follows is characterised by febrile, agitated strings that compel the whole drama forward, even in the major key second theme. Calm Sea, on the other hand, opens with a brilliant depiction of musical stasis. The vibratoless strings, with a particularly resonant bass line, underline the sense of nothing whatever happening, the ship stuck in the middle of its vast, imprisoning ocean, and it manages to convey its own sense of drama, for all the stillness. You can then feel the wind catching the sails as the flute enters at 3:18, and from this point on the overture builds up a head of steam that it never loses, the thundering timpani helping the ship into harbour. Perhaps that lack of vibrato slightly underplays the elation of the final pages, but it’s nevertheless very satisfying.

That same string tone lends a sense of pregnant expectation to the beginning of the Reformation symphony. Those massive brass notes that ring out from 1:21 onwards are intoned with seriousness, even portent, suggesting that something big is about to happen. The appearance of the Dresden Amen seems to heighten this, rather than soothe it, and the ensuing Allegro is full of thrust and parry, underlining the musical argument through clean orchestral textures and Gardiner’s legendary ear for detail. It’s very exciting, and the strength of the symphonic argument is formidable. There is a skittish, heel-kicking feel to the Scherzo, while the third movement, again, gains much of its soul from the colour of the LSO string sound. The finale then moves consistently forward with a progress that feels, if not inevitable, then unarguable. The Lutheran chorale theme is used as a unifying factor rather than an obsessive totem, and I loved the way Gardiner points up the colour of the treatment that each section of the orchestra gives it. The blaze of the final peroration is thrilling, and Gardiner manages to give the impression that it shouldn’t really sound any other way.

The BD-A is impressive, too, with very good surround sound, but there’s no film this time, just the audio. That leads me to my only criticism: the playing time for the discs is pretty stingy. At only 47 minutes, they could easily have included a substantial extra item. It’s really only the inclusion of the Blu-ray that allows any argument that this set is good value for money, and even then that’s pushing it.

Simon Thompson