Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts Mendelssohn’s Symphonies Nos 1-5

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COMPOSERS: Mendelssohn
LABELS: Deutsche Grammophon
ALBUM TITLE: Mendelssohn
WORKS: Symphonies Nos 1-5
PERFORMER: Regula Mühlemann, Karina Gauvin (soprano), Daniel Behle (tenor); Chamber Orchestra of Europe; RIAS Kammerchor/Yannick Nézet-Séguin


Mendelssohn’s symphonies are a bit of a cat’s cradle. They are numbered according to date not of composition, but of publication; and as the composer was an inveterate return-and-reviser, not only is the numbering out of sequence, but, naturally, different versions demand discovery. Yannick Nézet-Séguin brings us a treat in the Reformation Symphony: he uses the late Christopher Hogwood’s recent edition, restoring Mendelssohn’s original thoughts, which notably include an extended flute solo before the finale, beautiful in itself and stunningly played by the COE’s first flute. This work is the excuse (as if we needed one) for the recording, 2017 being the Reformation’s big anniversary.

Nézet-Séguin and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (COE) evoke the effervescent, restless, driven essence of Mendelssohn, often almost to perfection. The scherzo of the Scottish Symphony with its irrepressible clarinet and rustling-leaves background, emerges with gorgeous humour, springiness and clarity. The Italian Symphony catches not only the joyous energy of the tarantella, but also some heated violence in the finale. This recording is at its very best when the music is allowed to fly.

No. 1 was written when Mendelssohn was only 15, and Nézet-Séguin emphasises its links with the past via period-style devices – lean strings, leaned-on accents and a lot of tapered phrase endings, the latter an infuriating trope that can tend to knock the stuffing out of a piece. No. 2 (premiered in 1840) is a more problematic work: effectively a choral symphony, commissioned for a gala to commemorate an anniversary of the printing press’s invention, it does its job, but lacks Mendelssohn’s finest levels of inspiration. The performance has verve; but even the fulsome soloists – tenor Daniel Behle and contrasting sopranos Regula Mühlemann and Karina Gauvin – can’t quite make it convincing (I hope you will disagree).

Intriguingly, this is the first complete symphonies cycle to be recorded in the Philharmonie de Paris. At first the acoustic can feel a tad over-resonant, if splendidly clear, but soon the mature Mendelssohn’s music fills the space and the impact is warm and finely detailed. Hopefully, then, the first of many.


Jessica Duchen