Mendelssohn: The Hebrides - Overture/Symphonies Nos 4 & 5
Unsurprisingly, the quality of the playing here is very high. I particularly enjoyed the timpani roars in The Hebrides Overture, marked piano or pianissimo to fortissimo and down again, but often undercharacterised. Correctly played, they add a powerful air of menace to what can otherwise seem just a pretty picture.
In the Italian Symphony, Gardner coaxes elegant phrasing from the strings, which is fitting since elegance was undoubtedly one of the things Mendelssohn was looking for during his Italian tour, even if he didn’t always find it (as with the Papal choir). In contrast, Gardner allows the Reformation Symphony its full measure of grandeur and intensity, the brass fanfares blaring with unabashed religious fervour (in 1832 the Paris Conservatoire orchestra rejected the work after one rehearsal as being ‘too learned’ – or possibly too Protestant).
However, I query some of Gardner’s decisions over tempo. A swift Allegro vivace for the first movement of the Italian Symphony is all very well, but not if it leaves no room for the Più animato poco a poco at the end of the movement. At the conclusion of the Reformation Symphony’s finale, the problem is slightly different, in that Gardner does observe precisely the same indication, but begins it a dozen or so bars earlier than marked. And in the Overture he takes a clarinet version of the second theme at around half speed; yet Mendelssohn, we’re told, ‘strove to attain effect more by clever gradations of light and shade than by changes of the time.’