Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Symphony No. 1 [35:13]
Symphony No. 4 “Italian” [26:58]
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir John Eliot Gardiner (conductor)
rec. live, The Barbican, London, February 2016 (No. 1) & March 2014 (No. 4)
BD-A & SACD included in the package
LSO LIVE LSO0769 [62:11]

I’ve really enjoyed Gardiner’s London Mendelssohn series so far, and this instalment confirms its quality with two exciting, dynamic and agile symphony performers.

The energy of the opening of No. 1 is explosive, redolent with the energy of youth (astonishingly, the composer was only 14 when he wrote it!). The lack of string vibrato, which has been a constant in Gardiner’s LSO cycle, gives it a wiry energy and restlessness that reminds you of the Sturm und Drang, and even the more sweetly played second subject is subsumed into the general turbulence of the argument. However, the slow movement shows that Gardiner can still make the strings sound remarkably warm when he needs to. The violas, in particular, sound marvellously sinuous at the three-minute mark, and the violins then follow them brilliantly. The choir of winds at the start of the recapitulation sounds super too.

As a bonus, Gardiner gives us two versions of the third movement. Mendelssohn originally wrote a Menuetto that he became disillusioned with and, when giving the work’s London premiere in 1829, he substituted for it an orchestration of the Scherzo from his Octet. We hear both, and both are worth hearing. The Scherzo is a little more than an amplification, because the wind writing is an important addition, and it’s a tribute to the LSO strings that they manage to sound as skittish and playful as they do for a full-sized band. The Menuetto lollops a bit, but it is played with great energy by the strings, and the lolloping comes into its own in the thumping coda. The Trio, by contrast, is very different; still, with beautifully sweet winds. The finale has a dash and urgency that reminded me of Schubert’s Fourth Symphony, and the fugal sections of the development and coda remind you of Mendelssohn’s place in the canon of German composers, as well as prefiguring his rediscovery of Bach. The movement, like the rest of the symphony, is played with stripped-back vigour and sounds brilliant. The symphony definitely bears the hallmarks of a youthful work – the ending is clunky and a little tacked-on, for one thing – but it’s still a serious and proper work when it’s treated as well as it is here. It bears repetition: he was only 14 when he wrote it! Could even Mozart have achieved such a feat at that age?...

The much more familiar Italian symphony is every bit as fine. The symphony’s opening crack takes off delightfully before violins soar forth into the main theme. It’s a delight, and it was here that I most appreciated the surround sound benefits that the BD brings. The fugal episodes are very precise and utterly on-the-note, and the coda is joyous.  The Andante is truly con moto, as well it should be, and the major key section is more optimistic but purposely not particularly transformative. It dies away beautifully at the end. The Menuetto moves at a fair pace, but this is only a curtain-raiser for the most exciting account of the finale I've heard in a very long time.  The beginning explodes out of the starting block and doesn’t once let up the pace.  Tarantella and Saltarello weave together fabulously and the ending is clipped, precise and thrilling.  This disc is definitely worth exploring, even for those who aren’t already collecting Gardiner’s cycle.

Simon Thompson

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