Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphony No. 5,
String Symphonies: No. 5; No. 6; No. 10
Thomas Fey, cond; Heidelberg S (period instruments)
HÄNSSLER 98.547 (58:57)
The “Reformation” Symphony is one of classical music’s guilty pleasures. The composer himself was highly dissatisfied with it. Speaking to a friend in 1838, six years after the premiere, Mendelssohn said, “I can no longer stand the ‘Reformation’ Symphony; I would prefer to burn it than
any other one of my pieces; it shall never come out.” Indeed, the work was not published in Mendelssohn’s lifetime. It does not possess the structural clarity of the “Scottish” and “Italian” Symphonies. Nevertheless, its devout evocation of Mendelssohn’s feelings about his conversion to Protestantism make it one of the crucial early Romantic symphonies, even if it requires extraordinary insight on the part of a conductor to bring it off.
Thomas Fey studied period-performance practice with Nikolaus Harnoncourt. That fact brings a series of expectations with it. It is worth noting, though, that Fey also studied conducting with Leonard Bernstein, an entirely different kind of teacher. Indeed, Bernstein was always after his conducting students to be expressive, not to produce simply an anonymous sort of performance. Even though Fey has his bona fides as a period-instrument specialist, I always have found him to be both a skillful and passionate musician, not a cipher. In fact, the great Bernstein/New York Philharmonic recording of this Symphony from the 1960s may have influenced Fey, both in terms of pacing and dramatic emphasis.
The Heidelberg Symphony on this recording is a small orchestra, comparable in size to Mendelssohn’s Leipzig Gewandhaus. The instrumental configuration of the orchestra is not given in the program notes, but on previous releases it has been as follows: modern strings played without vibrato, modern winds, period brass, and period timpani. From this ensemble, Fey achieves a beautifully balanced sound, with considerable clarity for the inner voices. The period timpani in particular, with its characteristic “thwack,” provides strong, sharp accents throughout.
In the first movement, the two statements of the Dresden Amen have an unusual ethereal quality, from the purity of the vibratoless string tone. The initial tempo of the second movement is a little faster than I’ve ever heard before. Nevertheless, the winds manage it beautifully, and the result is quite perky. In the finale, the statement of the chorale, “A Mighty Fortress,” is broad yet sustained. As the movement proceeds, there is some shortage of momentum, but the coda is brought off brilliantly. In sum, this is a challenging, yet engaging, rendition of the “Reformation,” which should have an appeal beyond the confines of period-instrument CD collections. For a more mainstream version, I would recommend, in addition to the Bernstein mentioned above, recordings by Dimitri Mitropoulos and the New York Philharmonic and by Charles Münch and the Boston Symphony. I’ve also heard a concert performance on their level by Lawrence Leighton Smith and the New Jersey Symphony. As his Sheffield Lab and First Edition CDs demonstrate, Smith is a conductor who doesn’t record enough.
As for the three string symphonies on this disc, Fey reduces his string section further than in the “Reformation,” although the sound is never thin. In general, the slow movements benefit from the vibratoless sound, being calmly meditative. The fast movements are beautifully articulated, with the contrapuntal writing coming across with ease and clarity. You simply are astonished at the creative fecundity of this 12-year-old. I have the complete set of the string symphonies conducted by William Boughton. While they have a richer string tone, Fey’s performances have more air around the notes, which is all to the better, given the sometimes dense string writing.
The sound engineering on the disc, from three different locales, is excellent throughout. The engineer is a representative of Tonstudio van Geest, familiar from so many chamber-music recordings on Naxos. All in all, I would be hard pressed to name a better Mendelssohn orchestral disc from the digital era than this one.
FANFARE: Dave Saemann
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