MENDELSSOHN Symphonies Nos 4 & 5 – Gardiner
It is quite a coup for John Eliot Gardiner to present the premiere recording of a major Mendelssohn work, for here he follows up his scholarly investigations into the Schumann symphonies (as presented last year on the Archiv label, 6/98), with the revised version of the Italian Symphony, published in facsimile only in 1997, with a full score promised soon. In 1834, a year after the symphony’s first performance in London, the composer prepared revised versions of the second, third and fourth movements. He could not make up his mind how to revise the first movement, and when he died in 1847, it was decided to publish the first version, the one familiar ever since.
That said, it is not just love of the 1833 score that makes me react with astonishment that so meticulous and discriminating a composer as Mendelssohn could in his revision have actually undermined the inspiration of the original. On one level his aim seems to have been to simplify melodic lines, most notably in the main theme of the Pilgrim’s March. There Mendelssohn’s revision smooths over the quaver group in bar 6, making the result relatively bland and conventional. Significantly, Mendelssohn’s sister and fellow-composer, Fanny, is quoted as saying she preferred the original. By a similar process the melody of the Minuet is marginally smoothed over, but more seriously in the Trio the rising commentaries on the horn-calls, skipping in dotted rhythm, are replaced with plain rising scales, much less distinctive.
In the opposite direction Mendelssohn expanded each movement, in the Minuet mainly by marking a repeat of the second half on its first appearance, but more frequently by expanding linking passages by a bar or so. The one expansion for which I would concede a strong argument is in the finale, where in his revision Mendelssohn adds a recapitulation for the second subject. Even so, the concision of what we know still strikes me as preferable. Thank goodness Mendelssohn’s heirs chose the 1833 score. Also that for whatever reason he never monkeyed with the first movement, which he threatened at one point to change entirely.
Whatever reservations there are over the revision, it makes fascinating listening. On any count this is an indispensable issue for any lover of Mendelssohn’s music, when it tells you so much about the creative process, notably the danger of second thoughts on what was initially white-hot inspiration. Gardiner, as in Schumann, proves the ideal exponent, here drawing from the Vienna Philharmonic incandescent playing, not just highly polished and full of fine detail, but exhilarating in its energy and rhythmic thrust. That applies not just to the Italian Symphony in both versions (the revision offered as a supplement at the end of the disc) but to the live recording of the Reformation Symphony. There Gardiner is similarly persuasive, adopting speeds on the fast side, which yet have plenty of rhythmic lift, fresh and alert, with all Victorian cobwebs blown away. Unlike the Italian, the Reformation is not a masterpiece, but it is far finer than has generally been conceded. Vivid and atmospheric sound too.'