MENDELSSOHN: Symphony No. 3, Op. 56, “Scottish”; Symphony No. 4, Op. 90, “Italian” (1833-34 version) – Musikkollegium Winterthur/ Heinz Holliger – MD&G multichannel SACD (and 2+2+2) 901 1663, 67:33 [Distr. by E1] ***1/2:
The idea that Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony needs to be reassessed in terms of the supposed revisions he made to it, or the fact that he expressed great agony over the compositional process, does little to persuade a modern listener that something is wrong with the piece. During its composition he also said it was the “jolliest” work he had ever done and expressed satisfaction with the last movement, something he then recanted later as he planned to revise the last three movements. He tweaked it on and off for the rest of his life, and it was his first thoughts that were published after his death. He was 24 when he wrote it, starting it on a sojourn to Italy.
Of course the premise that Heinz Holliger takes is exactly that, the idea that the second go round would have been Mendelssohn’s preferred version, even though there is no indication he had come to a final conclusion on the work. Despite the reservations that the composer had, most music lovers are not going to be amenable to the idea that one of the most perfect symphonies ever written, one that has ingrained itself into the lives of every true classical music lover, needs improving, and indeed this is the case. What we hear on this recording in no way sounds like a “better” take on the work, and perhaps it is providence that the first version is the one that was published. The good news is that Holliger’s performance is a real crackerjack, nicely paced without being frantic (like Yoel Levi’s Atlanta Symphony reading years ago), and he does a fine job shaping each movement, proof of a real love for the work—and he has performed both versions.
The “Scottish”, though admitted by the conductor to be the finest symphonic work Mendelssohn created, and I would agree, is not as successful. This is a piece that is more difficult to conduct, and the final transition in the last movement is just not convincing, too artificial—as if making an interpretative point instead of going with one’s instinct. It’s not a bad performance, but when compared to someone like Peter Maag on Decca or Haitink on Philips the deficits are all too apparent. An interesting issue worth investigating.
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