Mendelssohn’s C-minor Symphony is somewhat neglected but Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s committed performance is full of vitality making the teenage composer seem remarkably mature. The composer did have a few misgivings and when in 1829, five years after its composition, he conducted the Symphony for the Philharmonic Society in London he replaced the Minuet with his orchestrated version of the Scherzo from his String Octet. It makes an admirable substitute although on the Symphony’s publication four years later, he restored the original Minuet. Gardiner solves the problem by presenting both movements although I recommend programming one’s CD player to choose only one of them when listening to the whole Symphony.
With an Allegro di molto first movement and an Allegro con fuoco Finale there is every encouragement to be forceful and this is a feature of Gardiner’s reading. As throughout, the LSO strings play with less vibrato than is usual but it does not mean any lack of tonal warmth. The Minuet sounds particularly strong and, to his great credit, Gardiner avoids the infuriating common habit of letting the speed collapse at the Trio section. He is not rigid in tempo however and his cautiousness when the drums quietly threaten the return of the Minuet is very effective.
The ‘Hymn of Praise’ Symphony is performed using the German text. The first three movements are followed by a Finale which takes the form of a full-scale cantata. The symphonic nature of the first three movements is clearly evident. After a bold Maestoso con moto there comes an Allegretto un poco agitato approximately in Scherzo and Trio form and its subdued treatment gives a sense of expectancy. There follows a romantic slow movement. Two years earlier Mendelssohn composed a Symphony, now lost, which, it is said, provided themes for the first three movements of Symphony 2. Could it be that Mendelssohn originally intended to use an orchestral Finale drawn from the earlier work? In the event, the Adagio religioso third-movement of Symphony 2 develops a march rhythm in which the fanfare heard at the start of the work is quietly reflected. The chorus then seizes upon it and joyfully sings a complex version. The interpretation of the choral Finale is of a lyrical nature and is supported by a well-detailed recording. The Monteverdi Choir is widely spread, and sounds powerful but Mendelssohn’s subtlety of scoring remains evident regardless of the music’s force.
After an expansive reading of the introduction, Gardiner takes a bright view of the ‘Scottish’ Symphony’s Allegro un poco agitato. Unfortunately at bar 99 he obeys the metronome marking which increases the tempo by twenty percent. The sudden hastening is disturbing – surely this is a spurious editorial addition for no tempo alterations are indicated until bar 512. In the event Gardiner gets round the handicap of the metronome instruction by easing the tempo to accommodate the return of the earlier themes and moving on thereafter. The brilliant Scherzo is taken at high speed – far faster than the metronome mark and very effective it is too, a real showpiece of orchestral virtuosity. After a suitably grave Adagio, Mendelssohn’s requirement for the Finale to be taken Allegro vivacissimo is excitingly realised, driven firmly right up to the concluding Allegro maestoso assai where grandeur reigns until the culmination is brightened by a final surge of swifter tempo.
The ‘Italian’ Symphony always responds to swift speeds and the first movement is notably sunny as a result. There is a vigorous sweep into the additional melody that heralds the exposition repeat and its long-awaited return near the close underlines the highly original construction of the movement. Suitable balance is achieved here, even though the woodwind is not particularly emphasised and there is precise timpani which also enhances the exhilaration of the exciting Finale. Altogether the work is given with a light touch, no sentimentalising in the flowing pizzicato-based Andante con moto and the Minuet moves airily with the horn parts played delicately in the Trio.
The start of the ‘Reformation’ Symphony features extremely quiet strings followed by brass fanfares in which the crescendo-diminuendo indications on every note are emphasised, an indication that this is to be a dramatic performance and suitably so as the work could be regarded as programmatic. There are emphases, crescendos and a marked increase of speed at the coda. By contrast the Allegro vivace, a Scherzo in all but name, sounds rather plain and woodwinds less well-focussed, in fact the recorded sound in this Symphony can lack detail. Timpani, though weighty, do not separate well from the lower instruments and I don’t think that the unusual presence of a serpent is anything to do with it. There are marked changes of speed for differing episodes, not usually a characteristic of Gardiner’s conducting, but is all part of his poetic approach which is especially effective in the Finale and the grand representation of the concluding chorale makes for a triumphant ending.
The Goethe-inspired Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage is full of contrast between atmospheric gentleness and exciting power although it does not sound entirely lucid in the lower-frequency region. Nevertheless, a different timbre can be detected and it may be linked to an interesting choice of orchestration: Mendelssohn asks for both serpent and contrabassoon but here they are replaced by an ophicleide played by Marc Girardot. There is a link however because, via the Greek, ophicleide means keyed serpent.
Ruy Blas is given a superb performance commencing with ideally blended brass fanfares – Mendelssohn includes alto, tenor and bass trombones. The reappearance of these introductory phrases is skilfully integrated into the dramatic sequence of melodies. This is a swift and exhilarating reading supported by an immensely clear recording. It gives ample evidence that Sir John Eliot has a deep understanding of Mendelssohn. I was so impressed that, immediately, I listened a second time. The Hebrides offers a vivid portrayal of the stormy sequences; elsewhere a peaceful seascape is conjured but why does the cello-led second subject lose pace? I can understand a relaxation of tempo when the theme returns later, led by clarinet at which point Andrew Marriner phrases this magical moment with great poeticism, but altogether the application of different tempos to succeeding themes is so varied as to interrupt continuity.
Immediately following on this fourth and final disc, there comes a sensitively contoured reading of the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The softest of pianissimo is achieved by the strings but full orchestra is powerful to the point of protestation. The Incidental Music was composed fifteen years later but the imaginative characterisation of the various elements of the play is here fully displayed. Ten tracks provide an extensive suite of movements. Very little is omitted although some may miss the charming little ‘Funeral March’ written for Pyramus and Thisbe – the play-within-a-play.
Preceded by the spoken prologue the delicate Scherzo provides an optimistic introduction, and the gracefulness of the strings is a credit to the players. An exchange of narrative between Puck and a Fairy interspersed by excerpts from the Scherzo leads to Oberon’s soliloquy before Titania’s words go into ‘Ye spotted snakes’, for soprano and chorus – with appropriate lightness in the choral singing here. No attempt is made to close-microphone the speakers and the impression is given of a stage performance. The following Allegro appassionato has serious overtones yet is given with elegance. The ‘Nocturne’ does not quite achieve its usual magic; there is an element of heaviness and the wind instruments do not achieve their usual blended warmth. The bold final movements satisfy and from the moment that Theseus bids the huntsmen to play their awakening horns all is joyful. A jubilant ‘Wedding March’ sweeps towards the close in which the Monteverdi Choir is splendidly crisp. Puck’s spoken epilogue is cleverly matched to the four gentle chords that open the Overture, and they coincide to make the perfect ending enhanced further by the very slow fading of the hall ambience.