MENDELSSOHN Symphonies Nos 4 & 5 (Manze)
How is the weather on the Italian leg of the Grand Tour? For John Eliot Gardiner the Mediterranean sun streams down, sharpening the contours of the landscape and glinting off the azure sea. Thomas Fey, on the other hand, finds angry storm clouds threatening and the scirocco whipping up the dust from the streets. Andrew Manze’s Neapolitan journey is somewhere in the middle: perhaps closer to Gardiner’s sunshine but slightly occluded, as if blunted by a light mist blowing in from the Tyrrhenian Sea.
Perhaps it’s the generous acoustic of the Grosser Sendesaal of the NDR Landesfunkhaus in Hanover, where these recordings were made. Nevertheless, despite some pinpoint string-playing and lovely, rounded woodwind solos, the focus that’s such a feature of those other performances isn’t quite there. Speeds are a notch or two down on the comparison discs, so the closing saltarello doesn’t fizzle with the manic energy of Gardiner or Fey. It’s a fine performance on its own terms but it isn’t the effusion of joyful energy that it might be.
As we travel back from Catholic southern Italy to Lutheran Augsburg, we find that Manze’s approach and the Hanover acoustic suit the sterner Reformation better, and this performance adopts the woodwind ‘Recitativo’ before the flute leads into the Feste Burg peroration, as did Yannick Nézet-Séguin in his cycle. Mendelssohn had doubts about both symphonies but this pairing should amply prove him wrong. (Check out Gardiner’s recording of the revised version of the Italian to demonstrate how the composer’s first thoughts were far superior to his second.) Nevertheless, for all this music has to offer, Gardiner in Vienna (not to mention Gardner in Birmingham), Fey in Heidelberg and Nézet-Séguin in Paris are the ones to prefer.