Felix MENDELSSOHN BARTHOLDY (1809 - 1847)
Symphony no. 4 in A major, Op. 90, “Italian” [30:06]
Symphony no. 1 in c minor, Op. 11 [32:10]
Kammerakademie Potsdam/Antonello Manacorda
rec. Teldex Studio Berlin, 11–13 December 2015
SONY CLASSICAL 88985338792 [62:22]
The Kammerakademie Potsdam, having celebrated its 15th birthday in 2016 last year, has previously recorded with a number of renowned soloists from the Berliner Philharmoniker, Emmanuel Pahud and Albrecht Mayer being notable. In 2015, the orchestra released its first Schubert symphony cycle with the Italian conductor Antonello Manacorda. For the current recording, the ensemble teams up with the Italian conductor again to produce a disc of Mendelssohn’s first numbered symphony and the 4th (“Italian”) symphony.
The 4th symphony, being the obviously more popular of the pair, is presented first. The symphony is known to have been conceived as a result of Mendelssohn’s visit to Italy sometime between 1829 and 1831. At the time of the visit, the sunny landscape and warmth of Italy is known to have impressed the composer. Such high spirits are reflected well within the music. Structurally, two interesting aspects stand out: the work represents a rare breed of a pre-20th century symphonies starting in a major key (A major) in which in a minor key (A minor); the last movement is given the characteristics of a dance. While Mendelssohn gave this last movement the subtitle of ‘Saltarello’, a type of musical dance originating from Italy, the musicologist Michael Steinberg contends that the rhythmic patterns here resemble more the Tarantella, another dance movement historically linked with Italy.
Manacorda leads the ensemble with appropriateness, without perverse phrasing, and tempi neither dragging nor restless. I was particularly impressed with the sense of poise in the second movement – it is taken at a slightly more relaxed pace compared to others out in the market. Given the already sparse texture due to the chamber-sized orchestra size, the restful tempo brings elaboration into each note plentifully, giving the movement a quasi-devotional contour. This approach fits the hymn-like serenity of the movement well.
In the remainder of the movements, Manacorda and his orchestra play with straight-faced execution. The persistent bottom-heavy orchestration with more-than-usually audible bassline and steady tempo give a rather stark and heavy character overall. Certainly the Kammerakademie Potsdam is no virtuoso ensemble, and upon listening to the piece repeatedly I could even hear a certain ruggedness. Yet this ruggedness is not a result merely of a lack of virtuosity and polish, but comes from a certain bluntness of expression which I believe is more intended than accidental. Compare this to the recently released performance by Gardiner with the LSO or Abbado’s lauded performance in the 80s with the same London orchestra. Where Gardiner achieves excitement through crisp playing, rhythmic alertness and well-shaped dynamics, Abbado imbues onto the sunny work a sense of airiness and graceful flow. As a result, Manacorda’s rendition may strike one as somewhat serious. Sometimes I wondered whether the work had indeed been conceived under the sunny skies of Italy.
The C minor symphony was written by Mendelssohn at the age of 15, after the completion of twelve string symphonies. Mendelssohn’s attempt in this first numbered symphony looks up to the mountainous achievements of Beethoven in the genre. Not only does the work share its main key with Beethoven’s 5th symphony, also the arch-Romantic narrative of lightness to dark is attempted. At the same time, Mendelssohn’s reverence toward the Classical masters is unmistakably there. Not only does the first theme of the last movement resemble the first theme of the last movement of Mozart’s 40th symphony, the work demonstrates the composer’s early mastery of the laying out of graceful themes with an abundance of inventive counterpoint, a la Haydn.
For all my lukewarm thoughts re. Manacorda’s rendition of the 4th symphony, the playing of the 1st symphony is excellent. The ensemble plays with inspiration and unforced intent. The tempi for the four movements are slightly on the slow side and expressions are again tinged with an element of ruggedness. Yet these characteristics do little harm in highlighting the momentous drama the symphony portrays. While this approach misses out on the clear-eyed vision of Gardiner’s musicality and Abbado’s strings-driven songfulness, the energy from the Kammerakademie Potsdam befits the youthful zeal at the core of the work. Manacorda’s version emerges as a winner.
This CD then comes as a mixed bag. Regarding the 4th symphony, the Kammerakademie Potsdam and Manacorda’s view seems rather generic next to the towering achievements of Abbado and Gardiner. For the 1st symphony, the spirited playing is a source of delight.
Overall, those looking for something full of graceful lyricism may find Abbado’s version commendable. For those looking for a reading of color and commanding incisiveness, Gardiner’s reading may come as a reward. Manacorda’s generous and natural reading somewhat covers the middle-ground. It must be added that Manacorda’s use of a chamber ensemble notwithstanding, it is Gardiner’s reading that generally fleshes out details and achieves transparency most successfully. The clean and balanced playing of the LSO simply cannot be beaten. Having said this, in some parts the piercing woodwind playing by the Kammeradakemie Potsdam stands out brilliantly. Will this Berlin-based orchestra continue to collaborate with the conductor to complete another symphonic cycle? I hope so – there is plenty of promise in the coupling.
A quick note on the liner notes. The notes are available only in German. Unfortunately, the timing indicators for the symphonies are swapped.