WORKS: Ruy Blas Overture; Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 11; Symphony No. 4 in A, Op. 90 (Italian)
PERFORMER: Bergen PO/Andrew Litton
CATALOGUE NO: BIS SACD 1584 (hybrid CD/SACD)
This is one of the most enjoyable discs I’ve listened to in a long time. Its programme combines the precocious 15-year-old composer’s First Symphony with the highly popular Italian Symphony he composed nine years later.
Contrary to what has sometimes been said, Mendelssohn’s music does not play itself and here conductor Andrew Litton, as in his recording of the Second Symphony (which I reviewed in the August/Proms 2009 issue), allows himself to add dynamics in various places where the composer hasn’t marked them (Mendelssohn perhaps relying on the initiative of conductors – though, knowing the composer, probably not of players!).
In every case these additions are intelligent and tasteful and do much in the faster movements to bind them together. Long, held notes are a case in point: sometimes they need to be steady and uninflected, sometimes an added hairpin or crescendo will contribute importantly to the surrounding texture. Litton, for my money, gets it right every time.
He also intelligently lightens up the theme of the First Symphony’s finale, to distinguish it from the preceding Menuetto which ends loudly in much the same tempo and in the same key of C minor. Litton also makes clear distinctions between fast and slow: in the Italian Symphony, the first movement goes like the wind, though with no sense of undue haste, while the third movement still retains the grace and dignity of the minuet from which it derives.
Litton likewise has a wonderful feel for Mendelssohn’s often asymmetrical phrasing, as in the legato second tune of the Ruy Blas Overture. This has not always been kindly received – a recent critic dismissed it as ‘a rather corny tune… a sort of congenial university song’. In Litton’s hands it is far more than that, and unfolds with an enchanting inevitability.How good, too, to come across a conductor who is not afraid to make his orchestra play pianississimo! In the finale to the First Symphony, for example, the pizzicato strings on tiptoe twice usher in woodwind solos to magical effect.
The woodwind section blend beautifully, and one of the most delicious moments comes near the start of the second movement of the Italian Symphony where the strings are joined by the two flutes, both vibrato-free. At the other extreme, the C major coda of this movement lifts you out of your seat. You might say that Mendelssohn’s fugal textures were designed for SACD, though of course the truth is rather the reverse.
In any case their appearance in the two symphonic finales here underline the sheer fun Mendelssohn was now having with counterpoint, having put in all the hard work at an impressionable age. I look forward eagerly now to the release of Litton and the Bergen Philharmonic’s recording of Symphonies 3 and 5 to make up a wonderful set. Roger Nichols