MENDELSSOHN Symphonies Nos 1 & 4
As they did in concert, the London Symphony Orchestra offer Mendelssohn’s first and second thoughts for the third movement of his First Symphony side by side; on CD, or indeed the vividly detailed Blu-ray audio disc, you may choose between them. Judging by his deliciously buoyant and lucid response to the orchestrated Scherzo from the Octet, John Eliot Gardiner would appear to side with Mendelssohn. The original Minuet is dynamically subfusc and polite, at least until the point in the Trio when the composer looks to Beethoven’s Fifth for inspiration (unsurprisingly in this C minor symphony) and devises a magical transition.
The rest of the performance burns much brighter with the flame of passionate conviction. The outer movements are fiery but not over-driven, and the phrase-ends turn on a sixpence. I have not heard the slow movement better done, even on the Irish Chamber Orchestra’s excellent Orfeo recording: solemn but chaste, with the best kind of historically informed playing on a traditional, only slightly reduced orchestra. Mendelssohn was a stickler for articulation as both composer and conductor, and knew precisely where he wanted notes slurred and separated; the strings of the LSO take the most careful note and almost sing the melody as if it were set to words.
On Sony, the Kammerakademie Potsdam are more laissez-faire about such matters. The bass-line is marginally heavier, and so are the tempi chosen by Manacorda. The opening of the Italian has a pleasant swing to it but the sense of musicians working well within their limits (especially in a sleepy Minuet) is palpable even without switching over to the electric response of the LSO to the symphony’s opening bars. Gardiner’s real competition is with himself, and the Vienna Philharmonic. But again the strings of the LSO display unrivalled agility here, and even work some cheeky portamento into the third theme (at 5'20") smuggled with such sly mastery by Mendelssohn into the development. Gardiner keeps a tight lid on the theme’s contrapuntal workings and then blows the doors off with the recapitulation (6'20"). Taken at a true presto, the finale never quite spins out of control but sounds as though it might at any moment. Outstanding.