MENDELSSOHN: Symphonies 1-5 – Yannick Nezet-Seguin & Chamber Orchestra of Europe – DGG 479 7337 CD 1 73:01, CD: 2 66:57, Cd 3 60:12, (6/16/17) ****:

Rarely heard compilation of all five Mendelssohn symphonies played live by the sparkling Chamber Orchestra of Europe.

There has never been any argument about Beethoven’s Nine Symphonies. They are synonymous with classical music itself. At once the most enduring product of the industry and the standard by which greatness is measures, they sit cozily in their boxes as radiant and redundant exemplars of musical genius. Brahms follows next as a cultural icon. His Four are as cosmologically complete as the compass points or the seasons. Recently, the rise in Schumann’s reputation has seen increasing attempts to assemble his symphonies, too, as a summation and epitome of his musical career.

The recording under review attempts to make a rare case for the Mendelssohn Five. It seems plausible enough, but let’s examine the reasons why it has been so seldom attempted. First, there is the big Lobsgesang  symphony-cantata, the longest by far, which is never performed. Directly inspired by Beethoven’s Ninth, it attaches a substantial chorale to three conventional movements. The texts are echt Lutheran piety, the Psalms filtered through an evangelical hermeneutic. There is much adoring of the Godhead balanced against a bemoaning of the evilness of the world.  The inevitable comparison to “Ode to Joy” works much to the disadvantage of Mendelssohn. The rapturous power of the Ode carries the simple and airy abstraction weightlessly along, while the many passages of exhortation in the Lobsgesang burden the incongruously melodious settings to a great extent. My wife, a renowned problem-solver, suggested a simple amputation, thus creating a second and contemporary “unfinished symphony” (although a number of composers exist who could fashion a plausible concluding allegro).

In fact there have always been just two Mendelssohn symphonies for the stage. The “Italian” (no. 4) and the supreme “Scottish” (no. 3). Thus, these recording made live at Grande Salle Pierre Boulez in 2016 attempt to elevate the sister symphonies to admiring gaze, to reveal the prodigious orchestral gifts of the composer from both ends of his career. The first symphony Opus 11 is a youthful work, it is flamboyant, demonstrative of Sturm und Drang but with both feet firmly planted in the classical rhetoric. Little separates this work in character or depth from the many string symphonies of the composer in his young teens. At the same time, there is but one burst of fugal brilliance which anticipates the staggering achievement of his career, the nearly contemporary Octet opus 20. For the most part, it offers affable tone painting and skilled polyphony, inventive but sometimes just a bit ornate.

The Smallish Chamber Orchestra under the baton of Yannick Nezet-Seguin is attentive to every shift in mood and instrumental detail in the score. If the Concert Hall is large, we are unaware, for we are in a special balcony 20 feet above the woodwinds. We suffer no obstructions and enjoy both great warmth of the strings and well-proportioned dynamics, which don’t require fiddling with the controls at home.

The Salle Boulez was having an especially good night acoustically for the recording of the “Reformation” symphony (no. 5).  The horns shine on the moving anthem which introduces this dramatic work. The first movement includes a somber, Brahmsian melody known as the Dresden Amen. There follow stormy passages of excitement. The instrumental sections stand out particularly well, while  Nezet-Seguin keeps the ensemble on course through the challenging score. The eleven and a half movement is one of the highlights of the performances here. I wondered why this symphony does not have the status of say, Brahms’ Third or one of the Schumann symphonies; the following Allegro Vivace explains why. It is just a pastoral waltz with a dollop of Biedermeier schmaltz and decoration. It is a palpable let-down. Next, we have the brooding but not especially lovely Andante (the gap between Schumann and Mendelssohn grows even larger), followed by a simple flute recitative; Mendelssohn is ceaseless pleasing with his use of the whole palette of instrumental sound. The gravitas comes back in the form of a Bach tribute hymn, Ein feste Burg. The subsequent torrential fugue shows Mendelssohn’s total mastery of the Kapellmeister’s deep art. It is stirring uplift, and if it doesn’t manage to pull together a work of uneven quality, it does leave one with a sense of a flawed greatness.

Little needs to be said of the two enduring masterpieces, symphonies no. 3 & 4. Tempos are conventional, and the chamber orchestra scale brings us closer to the performers.  Both are equally fine, so I will take the Italian in Winter and the Scottish in summer. If put to a vote by our readers, one would win the electoral college and the other (narrowly) the popular vote. What remains to be stated is that these performances will not be easily surpassed. Engineers and conductor have achieved a most gratifying spectacle of live music making, drama and tonal splendor.

Taken together, this is superb treatment of Mendelssohn’s orchestral work. We deeply miss the Fingal’s Cave and Midsummer Night music, but those are overrepresented in the composer’s many recordings anyway. But now when we hear them (and they are on par with the Scottish) we will have to imagine what they would sound like played by COoE and Nezet-Seguin. We certainly give the highest commendation to the sterling DG production, including its packaging and liner notes.

—Fritz Balwit