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MENDELSSOHN: Syms. Nos. 1 & 4 – London Sym./Gardiner – LSO Live

A vigorous and incisive Italian, with a fresh and even more exhilarating “First”.

MENDELSSOHN: Symphony No. 1 in c, Op. 11; No. 4 in A, Op. 90 “Italian” (1833 version) – London Sym. Orch./ John Eliot Gardiner – LSO Live multichannel Pure Audio Blu-ray & SACD LSO0765 (2 discs, on audio-only Blu-ray), 62:11 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

Mendelssohn’s tour of Europe from 1829-31 ended with a sojourn in Italy, where the 22-year-old immediately began writing a symphony that would reflect his experiences. It is easily the sunniest of all his compositions, though it did cause him heartache, so much so that he decided to revise it in 1834. But since it was never published in his lifetime, it is the earlier version commonly played today, and so Gardiner offers it here.

I expected something rather on the quick side, and he does not disappoint. What is most surprising is the ability of the LSO to articulate some of the fast triplet passages in the first and last movements as clearly and cleanly as they do, a real tribute to the virtuosity of the orchestra. This is an exciting if predictable performance (there have been others in this mold as good as this one, though without the surround sound), but I find myself still gravitating to the more measured and spacious account of Klemperer on EMI with the Philharmonia, truly a gorgeous classic that is one of the treasures of the catalog. Nonetheless, this one is energetic and well-managed.

The First Symphony is not as well recorded, and the chances that someone like Gardiner would give a great performance of this early (the composer was only 15 years old) piece were high. He does not let us down—this is one of the finest and most astute readings I have ever heard. Even the inclusion of the alternative third movement—from the Octet—works well (it and the original follow one another, not as an appendix), and the spacious and warm sound produced by the LSO make this a genuinely enticing acquisition. There are remnants of the period movement, such as the vibrato-less strings (which, for the life of me, is such a vacuous sound when done in the extreme), but there is enough good to override any concerns.

This is a two-disc set with Blu-ray and SACD, and stands as a fine addition to the cycle, a definite improvement over the rather stilted “Scottish” I reviewed some time back.

—Steven Ritter

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