LABELS: LSO Live
ALBUM TITLE: Mendelssohn
WORKS: Symphony No. 5 (Reformation); Ruy Blas Overture; Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage Overture
PERFORMER: London Symphony Orchestra/ John Eliot Gardiner
CATALOGUE NO: LSO 0775 (hybrid CD/SACD; plus Blu-ray version)
This is the second instalment in John Eliot Gardiner’s projected complete Mendelssohn symphony cycle with the LSO. Whereas the earlier release in the series featured his only recording of the Scottish Symphony, Gardiner has already given us a fine version of the Reformation with the Vienna Philharmonic for DG. Like the present release, the 1998 Vienna performance was recorded live, and thus offers fascinating comparison.
Gardiner’s interpretation has not changed drastically over the years: his adopted tempo for individual movements and inner details of phrasing and articulation seem relatively consistent between the two versions. The greatest difference lies in the respective orchestras’ sound. Whereas in Vienna Gardiner indulged in the strings’ richer tone quality, most obviously in the expressive account of the Andante, he extracts a leaner but no less atmospheric sound from his London forces, the violins performing here standing up as they apparently did for Mendelssohn in Leipzig. The Barbican’s drier acoustic allows the wind and brass to pierce through the texture with more thrilling impact, particularly in the finale where the chorale ‘Ein feste Burg’ resounds with triumphant affirmation, driving the music towards a powerful and exciting conclusion. Earlier, Gardiner secures some wonderfully light articulation in the scherzo. The middle section of this movement is particularly delightful, its irresistible charm pointing forward to Dvořák.
It’s a pity that the disc as a whole offers rather short measure and that room wasn’t found for another of the composer’s concert overtures. Nonetheless, there’s much to savour in Gardiner’s urgently driven account of Ruy Blas, and the vibrato-less string passage that opens Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage is simply spellbinding, reminding us of the wizardry and phenomenal aural imagination that is ever present in Mendelssohn’s orchestration. Erik Levi