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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Complete Symphonies
Eleonore Marguerre, Ulrika Strömstedt (sopranos), Markus Schäfer (tenor), German Chamber Choir, Heidelberger Sinfoniker / Thomas Fey
rec. 2002-2009, locations not given.
HÄNSSLER CLASSIC HC16098 [6 CDs: 402:15]

Thomas Fey’s conducting of Haydn’s symphonies has been admired elsewhere on these pages, and volume 2 of this Mendelssohn set was reviewed back in 2008. It’s taken me a little while to settle in to where Fey is coming from in these recordings, which have an appealing clarity and plenty of verve in the playing. Taking that second volume as an initial reference point, you will hear historically-informed, vibrato free strings in the Seventh String Symphony, which has a beautiful sensitivity in the Andante second movement, contrasting with boisterous energy in the Allegro first and even the Menuetto third. Other writers have commented on Fey’s ‘risk taking’, and if you like a restive, settled feel to your Mendelssohn then you may find yourself feeling a little buffeted. Get used to this angle of approach, and I would hope that you soon appreciate its bracing freshness in music that is after all the work of a youth with energy to spare.

Mendelssohn’s early precociousness as a musician rivalled and perhaps even exceeded that of Mozart, and the string symphonies are full of brilliantly crafted and strikingly mature music. I’m pleased to see that these youthful masterpieces are fairly evenly distributed throughout this set, so that there are fewer discs that are likely to become neglected out of prejudice over the later symphonies. Full of surprise and inventiveness, these are works fully deserving of close attention, and with Thomas Fey as a guide who leaves no leaf unturned in making them gripping and often quite dramatic you can be pleased to have gathered them up as part of this set, to be admired at your leisure.

There can be few symphonies that open quite as dramatically as Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 1, and Fey pulls no punches, allowing drums and winds to deliver their full effect. The recorded balance allows the strings decent weight as well however, and with this kind of clarity the whole dynamic spectrum and all of that inner activity can be followed with ease. Woodwinds are generally reduced-vibrato: clean but certainly not without expressiveness, and those timpani have a sharpness of attack that indicates firm sticks - not quite ‘hard’ as you will hear in period orchestras, but lean enough to prevent booming drums from drowning out the rest of the musicians in the tutti sections. The tranquillity of the Andante second movement starts out as an oasis of calm, but Mendelssohn’s restless harmonic development soon takes us beyond the expected, Fey leaning with just the right amount of expressive weight in the phrasing, and getting the best out of the orchestra’s naturally transparent sonic spectrum. The Minuetto & Trio feel dance-like but also have appropriate symphonic grandeur, and the Allegro con fuoco finale has drama enough to counterbalance the first movement, the energetic forward momentum and extremes of dynamic now feeling like bread and butter to a set that promises great things.

CD 2 has Symphony No. 4, ‘Italian’ which opens with a rapid tempo, testing the woodwinds’ articulation and making us think of Berlioz with those repeated notes. I had a listen to Claudio Abbado on Deutsche Grammophon, who has similar dash and flair in this movement but, working with the more heavy-weight London Symphony Orchestra has a little less clarity to weigh against their greater opulence. A lighter touch pays dividends in the Andante con moto second movement which skips along, giving those chorale-like woodwind figures above a real Bach-like feel. Going in order of the discs rather than the numeration of the symphonies, we get to the Symphony No. 5 ‘Reformation’ on CD 4 next. The Andante section of the first movement gets a seriously stirring performance here, with the wind fanfares allowed full projection, contrasting with those atmospheric strings; the following Allegro con fuoco a really virtuoso tour de force.

Maybe it’s time to bring out a few comparisons, and there are a few box sets around which compete with this collection. The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Christoph von Dohnányi on Decca (review) has the complete mature symphonies but not the string symphonies. There’s a comparable completeness to Brilliant Classics’s box - originally recordings from the BIS label - with the Amsterdam Sinfonietta conducted by Lev Markiz (review), and there is of course the previously mentioned Claudio Abbado LSO Deutsche Grammophon set. Listening to Markiz in the ‘Reformation’ symphony I don’t feel the same response as with Fey. The Amsterdam players are very good and the recorded sound is fine if perhaps a little close-up, but having become used to Fey’s urgent extremes runs the risk of other performances sounding more pedestrian than perhaps they deserve. Compare that sense of anticipation in the reprise of that second section of the first movement of the ‘Reformation’ in its last minutes and I hope you’ll hear what I mean. Fey not only has control in his more extreme treatment of the orchestra, but also a keener ear for the narrative potential in the music.

The Symphony No. 3 ‘Scottish’ should be a highlight of any Mendelssohn symphonic set, and this is certainly the case here. Fey manages to remain idiomatic while also pointing out how Mendelssohn anticipates Mahler in the opening Andante con moto of the first movement, and the folksy ‘wa-waaa’ that calls us into the Vivace no troppo second is great fun, as is the sprightly liveliness of the movement as a whole. Melodic hints of Beethoven in the Adagio and a real sense of surprise at its funereal development carry us to exhilaration in the final Allegro vivacissimo, whose rousing final Allegro maestoso assai section is handily given its own access point.

The Symphony No. 2 ‘Lobgesang’ stands apart on CD 6, its odd man out status betraying its origins as a ‘symphony-cantata’. At first I wondered if this was some strange instrumental-only version of the work, with no singers or chorus listed anywhere in this set. I ended up finding these on an image of the original release. This is the real thing however, and a glorious performance and recording it is too. With its extended duration the ‘Lobgesang’ can be heavy going, but Thomas Fey keeps everything moving along nicely and creating lighter orchestral textures without short-changing the score. The chorus is excellent, with well-blended voices and given a red-blooded sound in the mix to go along with an orchestra that by no means soft-pedals when the voices enter. All of the soloists are good, with experienced tenor Markus Schäfer giving a nice ‘lied’ quality to solos such as Er zählet uns’re Tränen, the lovely soprano duet Ich harrete des Herrn also not coming across as too operatic, though nothing is held back when everything, organ included, is thrown into Die Nacht ist vergangen.

Skimpy booklet notes, sketchy credits and lack of recording information aside, this is very much a set of Mendelssohn’s complete symphonies to acquire and keep safe from marauding borrowers. The six CDs are neatly housed in a double-width jewel case with those foldout carriers which work fine until you drop the whole thing. Once you’ve tuned into Thomas Fey’s ‘driven’ approach to these works these recordings will blow away any impression you might have had of Mendelssohn being the runt of the Romantics.

Dominy Clements

CD 1 [65:05]
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 11 (1827) [30:28]
String Symphony No. 8 (version with winds) [27:09]
String Symphony No. 13 [7:22]
CD 2 [69:23]
String Symphony No. 7 [21:28]
String Symphony No. 12 [20:44]
Symphony No. 4 in A, Op. 90 “Italian” (1832) [27:09]
CD 3 [72:19]
String Symphony No. 1 [11:40]
String Symphony No. 2 [10:53]
String Symphony No. 3 [9:09]
String Symphony No. 4 [9:54]
String Symphony No. 9 [30:41]
CD 4 [59:32]
Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 107 “Reformation” [27:30]
String Symphony No. 5 [11:13]
String Symphony No. 6 [10:38]
String Symphony No. 10 [10:09]
CD 5 [73:07]
Symphony No. 3 A minor, Op. 56 “Scottish” (1842) [36:18]
String Symphony No. 11 [36:49]
CD 6 [62:49]
Symphony No. 2 in B flat, Op. 52 “Lobgesang” (1840) [62:49]

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