WORKS: Symphony No. 4 in A (Italian); Symphony No. 5 in D (Reformation)
PERFORMER: Vienna PO/John Eliot Gardiner
CATALOGUE NO: 459 156-2
‘In everything I have written,’ Mendelssohn confided to his friend Johann Christian Lobe, ‘there is at least as much deleted as there is allowed to stand.’ Haunted less by self-doubt than Brahms or Bruckner, Mendelssohn was, nevertheless, a painstaking revisionist. Scarcely a year after finishing his Italian Symphony in 1833, he undertook a radical overhaul of this most shapely and seductive of his mature works. While the opening Allegro vivace stood unaltered, Mendelssohn remodelled the Andante, its processional tread more austere without the gilded ornamentations of the 1833 score. The Menuetto acquired a new bridge passage linking back to the reprise of its opening section, and the frenetic ‘Saltarello’ finale, now much extended, also granted its second group another hearing in the recapitulation.
John Eliot Gardiner’s accounts of both versions are expertly calculated, summoning playing from the Vienna Philharmonic that galvanises one’s attention at the start, and keeps it riveted throughout these stunning, sinuous and scholarly performances. And in Gardiner’s safe keeping, Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony never becomes a dusty patchwork of Teutonic reliquary. Luther’s Chorale ‘Ein’ feste Burg’ rings out with near-Brucknerian exaltation, but Gardiner finds an irrepressible lightness and joy in this music that isn’t easily matched. If you want this coupling, rather than the more regular Italian and Scottish conjunction, this is the automatic benchmark choice, outstripping Colin Davis’s Orfeo readings with the Bavarian RSO. Those who rate geography over theology should find Herbert Blomstedt’s mix of sultry Italian sunshine and leaden Hibernian skies appealing, in kaleidoscopic, in-your-face Decca recordings by the San Francisco Symphony. Michael Jameson