MENDELSSOHN: Symphonies Nos. 1-5; Overtures: Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, Ruy Blas; The Hebrides; A Midsummer Night’s Dream (complete) – Lucy Crowe, sop./ Jurgita Adamonyte, mezzo/ Michael Spyres, tenor/ Ceri-lyn Cessoni, Alexander Knox, Frankie Wakefield, Actors & narrators/ Monteverdi Choir/ London Sym. Orch./ John Eliot Gardiner – LSO Live multichannel Pure Audio Blu-ray & SACD LSO0826 (5 discs, DTS-HD MA 5.0 or PCM 2.0 on audio-only Blu-ray + downloadable digital files), 276:14 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

First, what you don’t get: the “Scottish” symphony on the original release was coupled with its better, a wonderful Schumann Piano Concerto with Maria Joao Pires. LSO Live should really have included this, because it means unnecessary duplication for those already in ownership.

Otherwise, this set’s a smoker. I am not sure what happened to Gardiner the day he recorded the “Scottish”, but although it is not bad, it’s not among the best either. Neither is its cousin, the Hebrides Overture–also on the aforementioned disc–though it is tolerable. I go into more detail in the review on this website, so check it out if interested. Also, previously reviewed, is the sparkling First Symphony, which I called one of the best available, coupled with an effervescent and delightful “Italian”.

The cantata-symphony No. 2, Lobgesang (Hymn of Praise), was Mendelssohn’s last completed symphony, published a year after its completion in 1840. It was composed for a festive celebration marking the 400th anniversary of Gutenberg’s invention of the moveable-type press, with its text taken from the scriptures. It has not had as good a reception in modern times as it did in the composer’s, which is a shame since the work itself is a cornucopia of contrapuntal and harmonic invention, its last-movement nine sections as original and inventive as anything he ever wrote. This account matches even the superb effort by Andrew Litton on a BIS SACD.

Symphony No. 5, the Reformation, was the composer’s second symphony, predating both symphonies 3 & 4, and to me always sounds like it. It is one of the trickiest to bring off, is a little pretentious in nature, though also a tribute of sorts to Bach, whose St. Matthew Passion Mendelssohn had revived in 1829, the year the symphony was started. Gardiner does a fine job with it, nearly equaling the recording by Bernard Haitink from 40 years ago—also in sterling sound on Philips.

Felix Mendelssohn, by James Warren Childe

Felix Mendelssohn,
by James Warren Childe

By the time Mendelssohn was sixteen, he had completed an astounding corpus of work that still holds up today—twelve string symphonies, six operas, and the amazing Octet for Strings—yet no one was prepared for the stunning Overture to a Midsummers Night’s Dream finished the next year at the still-tender age of seventeen. But when the King of Prussia decided to commission incidental music for the entire play in 1842, the composer easily returned to his overture as the prelude for a sensational set of pieces that remain among the highlights of his entire corpus of work. What is even stranger is the fact that the overture itself suffers little—if any—in quality from the much later Shakespearian completion. Gardiner, besides turning in an engaging and gripping account, makes two very wise decisions—to include spoken dialog from the play, and to present the work in English. There are many excellent versions out there, my favorites being Ormandy on RCA and Ozawa on DG, but this recording by Gardiner deserves a place among the best.

The two remaining overtures are very nicely done and fill out the set. Though this is the London Symphony Orchestra, it is also Gardiner, which means some period-adaptations must be accommodated, but all is tasty and tasteful. I still think it is a little odd to include a Blu-ray disc with everything on it, and four other SACDs, but at $25 for the entire set, this hardly matters. Plus, you get the option of downloading all the works here in DSD Stereo, 24-bit 96kHz FLAC, 16-bit 44.1kHz WAV, or 320kbps MP3 files. Great price, great stuff, great sound.

—Steven Ritter