Ruy Blas Overture, Op.95
Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.11
Symphony No.3 in A minor, Op.56 (Scottish)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Recorded 25 & 26 October 2013 and 16 February 2014 in Town Hall, Birmingham
Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson
Reviewed: June 2015
CD No: CHANDOS CHSA 5139 [SACD]
Duration: 75 minutes
Let’s start by being finicky. In 1842 Mendelssohn composed what we know as his Symphony No.3 (which in fact is his last, despite there being a 4, ‘Italian’, and 5, ‘Reformation’). He designated it the “Scotch”. The Chandos cover and booklet-note call it the ‘Scottish’ (as does Classical Source’s listing! – Ed.), but this is a modern idea – we certainly use “Scottish” nowadays (except when referring to whisky) but it did not begin to replace “Scotch” in general usage until after the Victorian era.
Mendelssohn 3 is an outstanding symphonic work but it has suffered from commentators who are scathing about the ultimate coda. It is a grandiose conclusion which has little to do with the preceding music. One of its severest critics was Otto Klemperer who wrote an essay for a Bavarian Radio broadcast in which he said that Mendelssohn had doubts about its orchestration. Klemperer suggested that “the clever Gewandhaus Kapellmeister Mendelssohn got the better of the great composer Mendelssohn. I therefore believe that this gives me the right to alter this coda radically.” Klemperer did just that and there is a concert recording to prove it.
Edward Gardner approaches the ‘Scottish’ vigorously. The lengthy first movement (with exposition repeat) does not outstay its welcome and he copes well with the awkward marking that goes back to the Breitkopf & Härtel edition of 1877 in which the score asks for a faster tempo at letter B – a tutti in which the shortening of note-lengths already gives the impression of surging more rapidly forward. The metronome mark requires a twenty-percent increase in speed, which makes the music suddenly and unnaturally rushed. A conductor should be free to ignore this instruction especially as it poses the problem of bringing in the repeat at the original tempo, yet there is no other modification of pace to prepare for it. Somehow Gardner manages to avoid the impression of unsteadiness and there is much that is exciting (a shame though about the dodgy edit at 3’05”). The Scherzo is beautifully played – this rapid, delicate, delightful movement is demanding for the players but is brought off skilfully and the rather general recorded sound does not hinder inner detail. Gardner paces the Adagio persuasively and takes some nine minutes. In a little-known but superb version by Arnold Östman we have a totally convincing reading which takes 90 seconds less – both he and Gardner do Mendelssohn justice. Klemperer takes close to 12.
What of the much-maligned ultimate coda, which Dyneley Hussey, but no-one-else to my knowledge, points out is derived from the introductory theme of the first movement? To Gardner there is no problem: he bounces it along with considerable speed, strong rhythm and gaiety. It could be argued that this results in a lightweight ending, but it is a good way of avoiding banality.
The neglected First Symphony is given a dashing performance that almost convinces. I like the ferocity with which the opening movement is driven. I recall Frans Brüggen being no less determined – Gardner is his equal. Nor does the Andante linger and the finale is bright and debonair with an exciting final stretto. The Minuet escapes me however; the speed for the Trio required by Mendelssohn is Allegro molto so I cannot understand why this sluggish and dreamy tempo is imposed on it.
Ruy Blas is superbly done: strong, positive and with Mendelssohn’s interesting device of returning to the measured opening phrase within the context of the swiftly-moving main section skilfully incorporated. The brief but beautiful dark subsidiary melody which sounds as though Elgar had made an unexpected contribution is lovingly phrased within a reading of great impetus. In this work the recording has rather more presence than the Symphonies. I like the warm acoustic but immediacy is not always a strong point; this is particularly so in the Finale of Symphony No.1 where brass and more particularly timpani offer firm support but their characteristically forceful tone is not much in evidence.
Chandos mentions that this is a 96kHz sample-rate recording so I tried also playing the disc via a computer using first Sony then Sennheiser headphones. Sonically I did not hear a great deal of difference but I was intrigued to see the titling on the screen which told me that the nine tracks contained pieces by Mendelssohn other than those expected (in fact the contents of Volume 1). The weird titling won’t prevent appreciation of Edward Gardner’s exceptionally fine reading of the ‘Scottish’ Symphony.