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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 11 [32:02]
Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 56 “Scottish” [38:40]
NDR Radiophilharmonie/Andrew Manze
rec. Grosser Sendesaal des NDR Landesfunkhaus Hannover, Germany, January 2016
Reviewed in stereo and surround
Booklet notes in English and German
PENTATONE PTC5186595 SACD [70:48]

To date, my reference versions of Mendelssohn’s Scottish symphony have been those of Peter Maag (review) and Otto Klemperer (review ~ review). Maag’s is simply a lovely performance in the finest of Decca early stereo, while Klemperer’s is a sterling and slightly surprising example of his great strengths in structure, clarity, and expressive power. Both recordings are notable for their treatment of the finale’s almost tacked-on, feel-good coda. Maag takes a deep breath and plays it for all it’s worth - a resplendent and stately peroration that might send a Victorian audience home feeling smugly righteous. Klemperer, however, disliked the coda so much that he had to be dissuaded from omitting it for his EMI recording, or substituting one of his own. Knowing this now, it’s hard not to hear the Philharmonia’s rather blowsy rendition without imagining Otto’s contempt! If you don’t take it too seriously, though, it’s a real hoot.

Those, like me, with such ingrained memories may therefore find the coda of Andrew Manze’s Scottish a little anti-climactic. That’s not to say he’s in any way remiss in his interpretation, and ‘tradition’ as we know it may be entirely misguided, but Manze has Mendelssohn sending his audience home at a fair canter. It might be his way of saying he doesn’t much care for the coda either, or perhaps he’s bringing his early music credentials to bear on an old warhorse, but among recent interpreters he’s not alone – Andrew Litton on BIS, for example, is also on the sprightly side. Much ado about nothing? Possibly, but those geared up for grandiloquence may be underwhelmed.

The more general observation though is that Manze’s Mendelssohn, while otherwise splendidly committed and vibrant, is perhaps lacking some affection; his apparent impulse to keep the music vital and surging forward robs particularly the Scottish of some of its charm and warmth. With Mendelssohn there’s always a fine balance between vigour and sentiment - too much of the latter and can result in the worthy and turgid, while too much of the other can sound merely efficient and superficially stirring.

But leaving all conventions aside, this release is of a Romantic composer played with buoyant classical purity and style by a mainstream symphony orchestra, in cracking form it appears. Manze’s approach is eminently suited to the 15 year-old Mendelssohn’s First Symphony, bursting out of the blocks with the opening Allegro molto, purposeful to a fault, but underscoring the precociousness and maturity of its composer. The throttle is relaxed for the middle two movements, but without losing momentum, limpid woodwind bringing a liltingly sweet Andante, and if the Menuetto seems a little po-faced, it only serves to clarify the young Mendelssohn’s gift, and his schooling in the models of Mozart and Haydn. The Allegro con fuoco finale fairly fizzes along, the energy, passion, and fire all that are asked for, and driven to a rousing conclusion by Manze and his charges.

As noted earlier, the same approach informs Manze’s Scottish, the last-completed of Mendelssohn’s five symphonies, although numbered as the third. If not as genial a reading as, say, Maag’s, Manze still provides an aptly amiable Andante con moto opening, rising to an invigorating Allegro un poco agitato as the movement progresses. The cheerful busyness of the following Vivace non troppo is all that you could ask for, with delightfully sprung woodwind, segueing gently into the mellifluous Adagio. The funeral march-like second subject is suitably imposing, perhaps foreshadowing Mendelssohn’s intention for the finale’s coda which, even according to the Pentatone liner-note, “shines forth almost hymnically”. Still, I’ve laboured that point enough, and Manze otherwise proceeds chirpily and energetically through the finale’s opening Allegro vivacissimo, decelerating to the pause which precedes the concluding, and perhaps ambivalently indicated, Allegro maestoso assai.

The Pentatone sound from the NDR Radiophilharmonie’s concert venue is full and detailed, albeit with an empty-hall acoustic, which is only emphasised when listening in surround. On this occasion, I found stereo preferable. There is also a hardness to the ambience which becomes increasingly intrusive above mf. Despite some edginess also in the 1959 Decca sound for Maag, it still sounds amazingly good by comparison.

I enjoyed Andrew Manze’s traversal of Mendelssohn’s first and (chronologically) last symphonies, appreciating their classical rigour, energy and drive, and the superb playing of the NDR Radiophilharmonie. If the Scottish didn’t ultimately challenge my existing choices, I wouldn’t hold that against it, given that it’s paired with a fizzing performance of the first, and delivered in the same vein. If I think Manze misses the opportunity to ham it up a bit, that may be my shortcoming. If, however, he plays a little more to the crowd next time, I’m quite sure Mendelssohn wouldn’t mind.

Des Hutchinson



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