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Mendelssohn: Symphonies 3 & 5 / Litton, Bergen Philharmonic

Mendelssohn / Bergen Philharmonic Orch / Litton
Release Date: 01/26/2010 
Label:  Bis   Catalog #: 1604  
Composer:  Felix Mendelssohn
Conductor:  Andrew Litton
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Multi 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

If you are looking for ‘perfect’ symphonic Mendelssohn then this disc has to come somewhere near, if not at the very top of the list.

I am new to this series of recordings, but this disc represents the last in a set of three which covers all of Mendelssohn’s symphonies, celebrating the 200th anniversary of his birth in 1809.

Both of these works have an easy-sounding and relatively sunny disposition, which hides considerable difficulties in their genesis. Started in 1829 in Scotland, the cover image for this disc is an engraving of the Grass Market in Edinburgh, one of the places Mendelssohn stayed during his trip through what was then considered a romantic wilderness suitable for artistic reflection. The
Read more symphony was only completed by 1842 however; some 12 years after the Reformation symphony. The reason for its lower opus number is that Mendelssohn was dissatisfied with the latter work, and refused to allow its publication during his lifetime. As has been stated already, the lightness of touch which has made Mendelssohn such a refreshingly attractive voice among composers of this period is very much in evidence with these symphonies, and Andrew Litton gets excellent results from the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra.

We have heard a few ‘period’ recordings of these pieces in recent years, and a trend towards smaller orchestral footprints from bands such as the Swedish Chamber Orchestra in their Schumann symphonic cycle with Thomas Dausgaard. This recording from BIS does not fall into these categories by any means. This is not to say that Litton’s approach is anything less than supple and idiomatically appropriate, and I know of several quarters which will welcome the warmly expressive strings in the playing here. Vibrato is also a quality in the woodwind, but my hat goes off to all of the Bergen players for impeccable intonation, and to the flute and other woodwinds for their expressive and thankfully non wide-and-wobbly vibrato. The weight of voicing is also very accurately placed at all times, and a superlatively good balance provides both detail and an overall orchestral texture in the tutti sections. This transparency of texture is an inherent quality in Mendelssohn’s orchestral writing, but I also have the feeling that we might owe a debt of gratitude to the kind of clarity obtained by Roger Norrington for his early 1990s recordings on Virgin Classics with the London Classical Players. In this way, Litton’s readings of these pieces fall somewhere between Norrington’s lithe cleanliness and Claudio Abbado’s more emotionally communicative performances captured through the London Symphony Orchestra on Deutsche Grammophon. Yes, Litton is clarity, dynamism and expressively warm playing personified, but he does tend to enhance the classical origins and early romantic context of these pieces. He draws superb results from the Bergen orchestra and brings out all of the rugged Beethovenian character in the Reformation symphony, but does steer an uncontroversial path which while wonderful for repeated listening and reference, may not have you in palpitations of excitement on first hearing.

I’ve read dismissive remarks on these performances as ‘middle of the road’, but extremes of interpretative license are not what we are likely to be looking for in Mendelssohn. He has his pious moments, and high octane passion and emotional hubris are not really ‘hot’ elements in this music, at least not to today’s jaundiced ears. There are some intriguing forward-looking moments as well. Listen to those calm string passages between 2:22 and 3:05 in the first movement of the Symphony No.5: Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question? Not far off, and to my mind such spine-tingling moments lift this recording above the run-of-the-mill. Add the sheer quality of the playing into the mix, and we have a winning combination. The SACD qualities of the recording are a nice enhancement, as usual opening out the aural picture and giving a real sense of location and involvement. Still attempting to put my finger on some marginal reservations, I suppose it might come down to these performances being very much ‘studio’ in nature. Looking at the booklet, I don’t get the feeling that the impassioned photo of Andrew Litton in full action on the back is taken from these sessions or this music. One has a sense that the players might respond with just that extra ‘edge’ with a live audience rather than just the familiar if marvellous acoustic of the Bergen Philharmonic’s home concert hall, but this might as well just be my imagination looking for weaknesses which aren’t really there at all. Conductors and record producers just can’t win can they? Anything other than highly polished performances and we reviewers start moaning about blemishes; and the closer things come to perfection the more we’re likely to hit on a lack of that last nth of emotional content and excitement. Fear not in this case however: if you are looking for ‘perfect’ symphonic Mendelssohn then this disc has to come somewhere near, if not at the very top of the list.

Dominy Clements, MusicWeb International



MENDELSSOHN Symphonies: No. 3, “ Scottish”; No. 5, “ Reformation” Andrew Litton, cond; Bergen PO BIS 1604 (SACD: 70:15)

I did not find Andrew Litton’s traversal of the “Lobegesang” symphony as convincing as I had hoped, so when this arrived in the mail I was full of concern. Mendelssohn’s works deserve the full-frontal SACD treatment, and Litton I had hoped was the man to do it, but the “Lobgesang” foretold that a successful complete series this was not to be. However, surprise of surprises, this new installment turns out to be all I had hoped for and more. The sound, to get that out of the way, is stunning, as are the performances by the Bergen players. They leave nothing to be desired.

But this is well-tread ground and needs groundbreaking readings to make a dent in almost anyone’s pantheon. Mendelssohn never really liked the “Reformation” Symphony, and to tell you the truth, I understand why. The thing is a hodgepodge of overblown Protestant sentimentality, uses the Dresden “Amen” in a way that is most artificial, and Luther’s well-worn “Mighty Fortress” easily degenerates into something pompous and bloated. Structurally this is one of the composer’s weakest works, and it takes a conductor with a great deal of sympathetic understanding to glue all the parts together. There are some exciting things here, and Mendelssohn’s symphonic skill is obvious, but his materials can grate when in the wrong hands.

Bernard Haitink is a conductor who understands this and was able to turn in a remarkably fluent performance on Philips years ago; it remains my favorite, at least did until a few weeks ago when I first heard this Litton. Everything is as right in this reading as it can be, and Litton presents the populist music in a manner that refuses to dwell on it as if it is populist music. The results are wonderful, and this one races to the top of the list.

The “Scottish” is Mendelssohn’s last and greatest symphony, though there have been very few really outstanding performances of the piece on record. Haitink coupled his “Reformation” with this work, and it is very well done. Leonard Bernstein knew his way around the work, though his sonics are a bit thin, and Christoph von Dohnányi also turned in a very fine reading on Telarc with his Clevelanders. Peter Maag has owned the piece for ages in my opinion, his also rather thin-sounding recording on Decca holding the fort until this Litton came along. Maag’s reading still reigns—his Decca is a classic. But this one is also extremely close to Maag’s, and the sound is simply not comparable in any way to the aged Decca. Litton’s grandeur and joyous verve in this work guarantees a place in the one-to-choose top five list, and BIS is to be congratulated for signing him and the Bergen folks to record this. Easily and somewhat urgently recommended.

FANFARE: Steven E. Ritter
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 3 in A minor, Op. 56 "Scottish" by Felix Mendelssohn
Conductor:  Andrew Litton
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1842; Germany 
Symphony no 5 in D major, Op. 107 "Reformation" by Felix Mendelssohn
Conductor:  Andrew Litton
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1832; Germany 

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