MENDELSSOHN Symphony No 3 SCHUMANN Piano Concerto
Two discs here, the first a Blu ray with visuals, the second a hybrid SACD. In terms of sound, the balance is realistic on both, with much internal clarity and a battling edge to Mendelssohn’s dramatic tutti. Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s Hebrides Overture must be one of the most thrilling ever recorded, adding volleys of sea-spray to well-navigated execution, achieving en route some breathtaking pianissimos (ie from around 4'50", and the clarinet at 7'22" just before the coda). Ebb and flow is of the essence in this proto-Wagnerian masterpiece and there’s plenty of it here, with vivid accellerandos and a subtle use of vibrato. So nice when scholarship sits comfortably on the sidelines and doesn’t compromise the narrative.
The Schumann Concerto with Maria João Pires is conceptually similar to the version she made with Claudio Abbado – chosen tempi are near identical – except that here orchestral textures are maybe just a little lighter. Gardiner makes a beeline for individual instrumental details, keeping important woodwind lines to the fore (the oboe and clarinet in the first movement) without distorting the overall effect. He treats the introduction to the Scottish Symphony most sensitively, attending carefully to relative note values while maintaining the flow, marking a subtle rallentando before the onset of the Allegro un poco agitato, though the pianissimo could have been even more marked. Taut and driven, the main movement goes well. The scherzo has a frantic touch of rush hour about it – ‘fast’ and ‘poised’ aren’t mutually exclusive concepts – and in the Adagio’s processional, Gardiner leans more heavily than most on the first note of the phrase. But the performance’s highlight comes towards the close of the sprightly finale, the wind-down before the Allegro maestoso assai, where quietly contemplative clarinets are joined by the bassoon and there’s a well-judged pause before the coda enters (and which ultimately picks up in tempo). That passage alone marks this out as a truly memorable performance.
Incidentally, the Blu ray disc includes, in addition to fine sound, crystal-clear video footage of the same concert performance (January 21, 2014, with the upper strings of the orchestra standing in the Scottish) and Pires’s sensitively played ‘encore’ – ‘Vogel als Prophet’ from Schumann’s Waldszenen. Camerawork is a little too ‘busy-busy’ for my liking (I’m far more likely to return to the purely audio hybrid SACD) but it’s great to have the option of watching it.