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Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Recordings Review: This Ain't No Fairy Music

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts Mendelssohn's five symphonies.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Cover portrait of Yannick Nézet-Séguin from his new DG cycle
of Mendelssohn symphonies. © 2017 Deutsche Grammophon/UMG
The five symphonies of Felix Mendelssohn have enjoyed a mixed reputation in the hectic whirl of the 21st century. Two of them remain standard program items: the Third ("Scottish") and Fourth ("Italian"), musical walking tours in which the composer muses on his travels to those two countries. The Fifth ("Reformation") stands between the early Romanticism of Beethoven and the perfectionism of Brahms. And the first two are almost never programmed: a cheerful work of the composer's early maturity and a massive choral symphony that is closer in its nature to a cantata. All these works used to be recorded regularly, but a new cycle of Mendelssohn symphonies is like a tricycle for adults: stable, reliable, but not everyone wants or needs one.



Back in the day (the day being twenty years ago), great conductors with fat record contracts would make cycles of the great symphonies, filling the shelves of record stores with slabs of Beethoven, Brahms and less frequently, Mendelssohn. Those days are past, which makes it all the more exciting that Deutsche Grammophon tabbed Yannick Nézet-Séguin to lead these works with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Recorded live in three concerts (Feb. 20-22 2016) in the luminescent acoustic of the Grande salle Pierre Boulez in the Paris Philharmonie this three-disc set (the lossless MP3s were used for this review) treats these five very differnt works as a unit, with each symphony given equal, enthusiastic treatment by conductor and ensemble.

The COE (and for the Second, the Berlin RIAS Chorus) are smaller forces than are normally heard in these works. Throughout these live recordings, these symphonies are given a bright, fresh treatment, with delicate strings dancing with eloquent winds. Timpanis played with hard sticks provide rhythmic support and accent important phrases, and the leadership is lively without ever sounding overly aggressive. Indeed, Mr. Nézet-Séguin brings his expertise as an opera conductor to the fore in the narrative-driven symphonies, whether conducting the listener through the Scottish Highlands, the ancient streets of an Italian Symphony or (in the Second and the Fifth) the solemn rites of the Lutheran church.

The set is divided into three discs. It opens with the First, derided (by other writers) as one of the dullest symphonies in the standard repertory. However, under Mr. Nézet-Séguin, the work sparkles. The light instrumentation skips along in the opening movement, and the chamber players lend a glowing forward thrust to the development of the opening theme. Woodwinds offer ironic commentary as if lifting an elegant eyebrow in response to the chugging strings. Timpani and brass provide the colorful accents. So far, so good.

It is paired on this first disc with the "Scottish", still one of the most popular Mendelssohn works. Mr. Nézet-Séguin captures the mystery and muted horns in the opening movement, which predict with eerie wisdom an important theme from the Annunciation of Death scene in Act II of Wagner's Die Walküre. One is compelled to speculate if the toxic anti-Semitism of that composer and his circle of flunkies and fawners may be at the root of Mendelssohn's decline in popularity? Or is it simple jealousy that also erased much of the legacy of such Wagnerian predecessors as Marschner, Weber and Spohr?

The slow Andante eventually gathers speed as the woodwinds find their voices and the major-key sun comes out. The second movement charges ahead. The DG engineers capture the clear, woody voices of the clarinets and oboes, dancing around the listener's ears with strings in quick-footed pursuit. The Adagio is adorned with echoes of the opening theme, clearly heard in a mournful discourse of cellos against plucked strings. In the finale, conductor and orchestra are off to the races again, tumbling cheerfully through each thematic repetition of ths spectacular rondo. The last section, where the theme contorts its shape and transforms into something else entirely offers blissful release.

The second disc is devoted to the Second Symphony. Nicknamed the Lobgesang ("Hymn of Praise") this work requires a chorus and two soloists for its final movement, a sort of cantata in the spirit of Beethoven's Ninth. The first three movements are beautifully crafted, and the delicate Adagio may be the best that Mendelssohn wrote. Here, it is contemplative, stirring and played with loving care. When it is time for their entramce, the Berlin RIAS Chamber Choir shines forth, supplanted by two soloists: tenor Daniel Behle and sopranos Regula Mühlemann and Karina Gauvin. Mr. Nézet-Séguin's skill as a director of vocal music suits this material well, and this is the highlight of the whole set.

After this heavy meal, the four movements of the "Italian" Symphony breeze by like a zephyr from the Adriatic. Mr. Nézet-Séguin keeps the mood light and friendly, cleansing the palate and preparing the listener for the set's grand finale. This is the "Reformation" Symphony in all its weighty glory. Both the "Dresden Amen" (a musical idea the Wagner also borrowed for two of his operas) and the hymn "Ein feste burg" are prominently featured. Under this excellent conductor, this work comes off more than a celebration of a sect of German Protestantism: it has all the universal appeal of a Beethoven symphony. 

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.