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MENDELSSOHN: Symphony No. 3, “Scottish”; Hebrides Overture; SCHUMANN: Piano Concerto in a – Maria Joao Pires, p./ London Sym. Orch./ John Eliot Gardiner – LSO Live Pure Audio Blu-ray & SACD

MENDELSSOHN: Symphony No. 3 in a, Op. 56 “Scottish”; Hebrides Overture, Op. 26; SCHUMANN: Piano Concerto in a, Op. 54 – Maria Joao Pires, piano/ London Sym. Orch./ John Eliot Gardiner – LSO Live multichannel Pure Audio Blu-ray & SACD LSO0765 (2 discs, DTS-HD MA 5.0 or PCM 2.0 on audio-only Blu-ray + Concert video footage), 79:17 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ***1/2:

My expectations for this album were sky high—perhaps too high. After all, what else could you want than someone like John Eliot Gardiner, who has continually confounded expectations whether in ancient music, Bach, or even the Schubert 9th, coupled with a rejuvenated LSO that has never played better in its history than now, in some perfectly early great Romantic music. To top it off, a wonderful package, with Blu-ray audio, video, SACD, each in surround sound and stereo. The playing is the absolute tops, crisp, clear, with lots of depth and richness of bass—a dream release right?

Yet—the Hebrides is so pulled and twisted—well, not twisted maybe, but definitely stretched a bit—that it sounds more like a tone poem than what it really is, an overture. Gardiner uses it to suit his every whim, and when compared to someone like Peter Maag on Decca, despite the tinny sound, well, you really can’t.

The Symphony fares much better, but even here I feel like there is a distinct disconnect between intention and integrality of meaning. Gardiner continues to display his intent of imbuing meaning into phrases and even bars where Mendelssohn has already piped in plenty of it. There are some exciting passages of course, and this is far from not being worthwhile, especially if you love Mendelssohn and this work in particular as much as I do, but again when compared to the aforementioned Maag and especially the recent Andrew Litton recording on a Bis SACD you see what is missing. Gardiner is very good, bordering on great, but not quite achieving it.

The best piece here is the poetic and rapturously personal account of the Piano Concerto of Schumann, the ivories tickled by the ever-Romantic and always firmly in control Maria Joao Pires. This will not supplant recordings like the awesomely passionate Rudolph Serkin or the masterly account by Martha Argerich (my personal favorite), but Pires mines diamonds that are too often overlooked by others. This account alone makes the disc worthwhile, but taken as a whole it is still valuable. I look forward to more from these forces, and especially—in this magnificent format.

—Steven Ritter

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