MENDELSSOHN Symphonies Nos 3 & 5 – Litton
“Youthful juvenilia” was the painfully self-critical Mendelssohn’s put-down of his Reformation Symphony. “Of all my pieces this is the one I should most like to burn.” Andrew Litton’s fiery performance renewed my gratitude that he didn’t. From the hushed polyphony of the slow introduction – Palestrina refracted through a Mendelssohnian prism – and the combative opening Allegro to a truly exultant finale, Litton and his spruce Bergen orchestra (violins lithe rather than rich-toned, basses mobile and articulate) banish any hint of turgidity. Tempo and character are acutely judged. The outer movements, which in some performances can sound like slow music speeded up, have a surging impetus; the Scherzo is blithe and airy; the grave G minor Andante is eloquently phrased, with a gentle flexibility of pulse. Litton’s ear for balance, and the luminous BIS recording, ensure that the (for Mendelssohn) dense textures of the fast movements never sound remotely clogged.
Litton’s Scottish likewise combines verve, textural clarity and a vivid sense of atmosphere – say, in the whooping Scherzo, with its chuckling, cavorting woodwind and horns, and the haunting lull before the finale’s 6/8 coda (6'22"). The slow movement, again, is sensitively phrased and timed, with no whiff of sentimentality. And throughout – most obviously in the finale’s truculent central fugato – the performance gains from the antiphonal placing of the violins. Only the first movement raised doubts. Litton finely catches the mystery and melancholy of the “Holyrood” introduction, oboes and horns rightly dominating in the balance. But the Allegro un poco agitato begins steadily, shorn of any agitato feeling, at way under Mendelssohn’s prescribed metronome marking, accelerates frantically into the first fortissimo and then slams the brakes on for the embellished return of the main theme. Other conductors, including Peter Maag in a vintage recording with the LSO (Decca, 7/95) and Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Warner, 5/92), handle the movement’s tempo fluctuations more subtly and satisfyingly.
Divisi violins also enhance Litton’s fresh, vivacious performance of the Italian, above all in the finale’s whirling contrapuntal imbroglios. The athletic Bergen orchestra (articulation superbly crisp and precise) produce marvels of lightness at speed here. Elsewhere the tricky-to-gauge tempi in the middle movements are ideally chosen: the modal-flavoured Andante solemn and evocative, yet with its con moto qualification duly observed, the third movement poised between Classical minuet and Romantic intermezzo, with telling touches of portamento. At first I thought the glorious opening movement a shade too driven. But while conductors such as Harnoncourt, Kurt Masur (Warner, 4/88R) and Abbado (DG, 2/90) allow that much more space for lyrical phrasing, the Bergen players vindicate Litton’s rapid tempo with their deft, poised playing, not least in the development’s feathery fugato.
While it’s absurd to talk of an outright winner in such a congested field, this is an exhilarating, thoroughly enjoyable Italian, superbly played and recorded. Its attractions are enhanced by the couplings: a trim, elegant and, where apt (as in the Minuet), trenchant performance of the teenage Mendelssohn’s first published Symphony, in part a homage to Mozart’s famous G minor Symphony, and a full-blooded reading of the splendid overture to Victor Hugo’s “abominable” (Mendelssohn’s verdict) melodrama Ruy Blas.