MENDELSSOHN Complete Symphonies (Nézet-Séguin)
Mendelssohn’s five numbered symphonies make a motley collection: a piece of precocious juvenilia, three ‘named’ symphonies, only one of which (the Scottish) the composer deemed worthy of publication, and the Lobgesang, a ‘symphony-cantata’ that found its way into the canon as No 2. Once criticised for being a pale simulacrum of Beethoven’s Ninth, the Lobgesang, like the Reformation, has benefited from a younger generation of conductors set on stripping the music of Victorian complacency and grandiloquence. Andrew Litton (BIS, 9/09) and Thomas Fey (Hänssler, 6/10) did just that. In their new Mendelssohn cycle, recorded at concerts in Paris, Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the brilliant Chamber Orchestra of Europe follow suit, marrying sinew, clarity and point of detail and – a hallmark of their performances thoughout these discs – unerring control of tension. With a subtle fluidity of pulse, Nézet-Séguin minimises the dangers of rhythmic squareness in the first movement. I don’t hear Mendelssohn’s prescribed poco agitato in the Allegretto second movement, though it beguiles with its caressing delicacy. Here and elsewhere the COE woodwind are superlative, individually and in consort. And the Adagio religioso (lovely veiled strings at the opening), shorn of ponderousness, emerges with an essentially Mendelssohnian quality of innocence.
Conductor and orchestra show the same vitality and care for instrumental colour and balancing in the choral sections, from the murmuring idyll of ‘Sagt es, die ihr erlöset seid’ to the exultancy of ‘Die Nacht ist vergangen’, euphorically launched by Karina Gauvin. Once over a slightly squally first entry, Gauvin impresses with her full, warm tone and verbal sensitivity, while tenor Daniel Behle matches Litton’s Christoph Prégardien in the anxious questioning of ‘Ist die Nacht bald hin?’ and surpasses him in lyrical allure. My only real caveat is that the impact of the excellent RIAS chorus is rather muted in the resonant acoustic.
Like the Lobgesang, the once-derided (including by the composer) Reformation is hard to meld into a satisfying structural entity. Nézet-Séguin, persuasively to my ears, prioritises lyricism and grace, without short-changing the first movement’s con fuoco marking. Here and in the finale his gift for building tension over long spans ensures that the music never merely happens. Spurred on by athletically sparring divisi violins, the first movement drives to a fine, searing climax, while the finale darts and leaps jubilantly, with no whiff of pomposity in the marching second theme that irresistibly evokes ‘O my darling Clementine’. Delightful, too, are the airy, chamber-musical textures of the Scherzo and pastoral Trio, and the unsentimental eloquence of the Andante, enhanced by tastefully judged sliding portamentos – another hallmark of these performances – and meticulous observation of Mendelssohn’s detailed dynamic markings. Like Antonello Manacorda in his recent recording (Sony Classical, 6/17), Nézet-Séguin uses the recently published edition of the sympohony by Christopher Hogwood, which, inter alia, restores the woodwind fantasy-cadenza at the start of the finale that Mendelssohn deleted from his autograph. This is one of the most compelling Reformations on disc.
The early C minor – here more suave than fiery – and the two favourite named symphonies are almost as good. Brio and Mendelssohnian grace go hand in hand in the outer movements of the Italian, buoyed by an agile, lissom bass line and, where apt, violin-playing of thistledown delicacy. The development’s gradual surge from tense pianissimo lull to the jubilant return of the main theme is one of many moments in these symphonies that proclaims Nézet-Séguin’s mastery of transition. For my taste the processional second movement, shaped con amore, is too measured for an Andante con moto: Roger Norrington and the London Classical Players (Erato, 11/90) are spot-on here. But for a combination of poise, élan and light, pointed rhythmic articulation (so crucial in Mendelssohn), the final saltarello has rarely been bettered.
True to form, Nézet-Séguin emphasises elegiac lyricism in the flexibly paced opening movement of the Scottish (the Allegro’s main theme is hardly un poco agitato), though he gives full value to the contrapuntal tensions of the development, underpinned by exemplary timpani clarity. The superb (unnamed) COE clarinet – a star player in this symphony – launches one of the most ebullient and brilliantly played Scherzos on disc. While the Adagio is rather broader than Mendelssohn’s swift metronome marking, the main theme combines luminous purity with expressive, natural-sounding rubato, while Nézet-Séguin’s perfectly graded crescendos enhance the hieratic starkness of the minor-key episodes. The finale is marvellously atmospheric, from the trenchancy of the opening (mindful of Mendelssohn’s original guerriero marking), through the mysterious sense of distancing in the hushed clarinet-bassoon duo before the coda, to a bounding, exultant peroration. It’s dangerous, of course, to nominate an outright winner, especially given the competition in the Scottish and Italian symphonies. A pity, too, about the slightly fuzzy recording of the chorus in the Lobgesang. But for anyone wanting a complete set of the symphonies in the lean, lithe modern mould – my kind of Mendelssohn – Nézet-Séguin’s imaginative, fabulously executed performances guarantee abiding pleasure.