MENDELSSOHN Symphonies Nos 3 & 5
The Potsdamers’ disc of Mendelssohn’s Symphonies Nos 1 and 4 (10/16) left Peter Quantrill unexcited. My own reactions to its successor were more positive, especially in the case of the Reformation, once branded dry and ‘academic’ and virtually disowned by the composer. It’s been a good decade for the symphony, with bracing versions by, inter alios, Andrew Litton, likewise paired with the Scottish (BIS, 6/10), Edward Gardner (Chandos, 2/14), Thomas Zehetmair (MDG, 4/14) and the ever-provocative Thomas Fey (Hänssler Classic). Antonello Manacorda and his spruce Potsdam band (modern instruments played with historical awareness) offer a comparably lithe, up-tempo performance, with vivid wind detailing and clearly etched textures, not least in the finale’s strenuous fugal bouts. Of stiffness and pomposity there is ne’er a trace.
After a nobly built introduction, culminating in a shimmering, truly pianissimo ‘Dresden Amen’, the first movement has an urgent, fiery sweep, balancing trenchancy with the lyrical impetus that is a Mendelssohnian sine qua non. And the violins’ cussed antiphonal jousting in the development confirms that divisi violins are as crucial in this symphony as they are in Beethoven’s Seventh. At a swift though never hectic-sounding tempo, the Scherzo darts and flickers rather than ambles – a reminder that the Reformation Symphony was conceived by a 20 year-old who three years earlier had created the miraculous A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture. Unlike his rivals, Manacorda includes the flute-led woodwind cadenza at the start of the finale which Mendelssohn deleted from his autograph. I’m glad to have heard it, especially when played as sensitively as here, but, as the composer doubtless felt, it does rather diminish the effect of the solo flute chorale that follows.
I’d certainly rank this fresh and exhilarating Reformation with the recent versions listed above. The performance of the Scottish is in similar vein, and very enjoyable it is. From the gaunt, wind-dominated opening, Manacorda is alert to the symphony’s distinctive, often abrasive sound world (internal balances are spot-on), and, again, builds tension over long paragraphs. While I’d have liked a more fluid pulse in the first movement and, especially, the Adagio, Manacorda takes note of Mendelssohn’s swift metronome markings and draws brilliant playing from his orchestra, not least the all-important first clarinet. The scherzo is a tour de force of mercurial delicacy (plenty of horn mischief here, too), while the A major coda whoops and blazes as it should. If your taste is for a more poetic, Romantically flexible Scottish, go for Harnoncourt (Warner, 5/92), Dohnányi (Decca, 12/87) or the vintage Maag (Decca, 7/95). But for a superbly played and recorded performance in the modern mould, with many individual felicities, Manacorda and his band stand up well alongside Andrew Litton, Andrew Manze (Pentatone) and, on period instruments, Pablo Heras-Casado (Harmonia Mundi, 3/16): another confirmation that on disc, at least, Mendelssohn lovers have never had it so good.