MENDELSSOHN Symphonies Nos 1 & 3
Two litmus tests in any performance of Mendelssohn’s glorious Scottish Symphony are the Adagio third movement and the final peroration. Noting the composer’s swift metronome markings, here and elsewhere, Andrew Manze comes close to my ideal in both. Familiar charges of over-sweetness and Victorian pomposity seem more than usually absurd. Like Thomas Fey (6/10) and Roger Norrington (both on Hänssler) and Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Warner, 5/92), Manze encourages his excellent modern-instrument orchestra to play with a period lightness, paring down the string tone (vibrato sparingly but expressively applied) and giving close attention to wind detail and internal balance. The Adagio, taken at a flowing but flexible tempo, has a chaste beauty, the violin melody eloquently sung yet with Mendelssohn’s prescribed bowing, dynamics and accents precisely observed – a world away from the undifferentiated sostenuto of many older conductors. As to the symphony’s ‘problematic’ coda, after listening to Manze’s mounting exhilaration, culminating in a final euphoric blaze, you might wonder what all the fuss was about.
From the bardic opening theme, given a properly bleak edge (oboes and horns, rather than divided violas, to the fore), Manze and his players always ensure maximum clarity in the outer movements’ often dense textures. Time and again in the tuttis I registered wind detail I had not noticed before. Crucially, too, the violins are separated left and right, with obvious dividends in the deliciously fleet, gamesome Scherzo (here a Highland Midsummer Night’s Dream) and the fugal sparrings of the finale, where Manze emphasises delicacy over tartan bellicosity. In the opening Allegro Mendelssohn’s hushed, tense un poco agitato is nicely caught (the deep clarinet more than usually audible in the main theme), though other conductors, including Harnoncourt, have managed the subsequent tempo changes more subtly. That said, there are many felicities, not least the mysterious sense of distancing as the development ebbs and the veiled, truly pianissimo cello descant at the recapitulation.
For its echt Mendelssohnian combination of pace, precision, flexibility and transparency, Manze’s performance joins Norrington, Dohnányi (Decca, 12/87), the more abrasive Fey and the Romantically inclined Harnoncourt on my Scottish short list. Energy, textural clarity and some fabulous woodwind-playing are also hallmarks of the Mozart-meets-Weber First Symphony, composed a year before the miraculous Octet. Manze’s rugged, slower-than-expected tempo for the Allegro molto minuet underlines Mendelssohn’s debt to Mozart’s G minor Symphony, No 40 (almost a case of ‘call the lawyers’). Floating the melody across the bar line, the players beautifully capture the Andante’s mingled solemnity and innocence, while the lissom divisi violins are again shown to advantage in finale’s scurrying fugal development.