Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphonies: No. 4, “
No. 5, “
Ola Rudner, cond; Württemberg P
ARS 38 111 (SACD: 64:40)
This CD, simply put, contains the most beautiful and beautifully recorded performances of Mendelssohn symphonies I have ever heard. Reviewers, in their many enthusiasms, so often appear before us as masters of hyperbole that one feels obliged to resist falling under the spell of too many
favorable adjectives. But every so often one is simply struck dumb by the sheer perfection and rightness of well-known music coming to us from unexpected sources. So it is here.
I will confess not only that had I never heard of the Württemberg Philharmonic or its conductor, Ola Rudner, but that I was beginning to tire of the simplicities of the Mendelssohn “Italian” Symphony (at least as commonly presented to audiences by bored orchestras). Usually, there is some sort of forced gaiety to this piece and orchestras substitute a modicum of rat-tat-tat energy for any real interest in phrasing it. And almost always, the edition played is not the revised one, with its many ambiguities. Here we have Mendelssohn’s nearly final thoughts, with only the first movement, at his death, still awaiting changes. And similarly, the “Reformation” heard here is quite different from the symphony as usually performed, about which more in a moment.
But from the first downbeat, the “Italian” Symphony on this CD conveys the most seductive sweep I’ve ever heard, somehow managing full articulation and engaged forward motion on a magic carpet of string beauty. Ola Rudner turns out to have been concertmaster of the Vienna Symphony and a protégé of Sandor Vegh. That explains a lot. No phrase begins percussively. Creamy woodwinds levitate through soft string textures. Cadences in the basses unfurl luxuriously behind the beat, like rugs underfoot. Yet the textures remain utterly transparent. Vibrato is at a minimum, which sometimes gives the basses a wonderful organ-like growl—but there is nothing metallic whatsoever to be found in the violins. And the sound, including its ambient effects, is captured from an ideal seat. Nowhere does the CD enlighten us as to where the recording was made, but I’ve seldom encountered a venue so unlikely to produce an ugly moment for the listener, and so effective in multichannel format. This is a recording that really makes you feel present in the room.
The beauty and dedication of the performance is magnified by the eerie effect of some of Mendelssohn’s revisions. The Andante is now less a simple pilgrimage than a moonlit memorial to Goethe, who died in 1832. The extra harmonic twists modernize the symphony in the same way that “shadow music” modernizes the Ives Third Symphony. And revisions to the two remaining movements make the work more chromatic and romantic, if less immediately hummable. John Eliot Gardiner has recorded both versions of the “Italian” with the Vienna Philharmonic. It is instructive to hear them side by side. But, astonishing thing to say, the Württemberg Philharmonic plays rings around the VPO.
When we consider the “Reformation” Symphony, performance and sound are equally captivating. And the string suspensions in the introduction have real meaning and beauty. But once in the Allegro, the listener will be struck by the fact that this is clearly the earliest edition of the piece. Like early Bruckner editions, this version of the “Reformation” sometimes doesn’t know what to do with itself. In several spots there are preparatory passages that turn out to be completely unnecessary and are simply left out in the usual text of the symphony.
The Allegro Vivace of the second movement is pretty much the same as usual. It has always oddly reminded me of the
, which was my favorite piece of music as a child. And much is explained by the addition of a lengthy recitative for flute between the short slow movement and the main body of the finale. Mendelssohn, clearly having recently become aware of the
, tries to work Berlioz-like wonders with a lonely shepherd’s song of his own, except that it leads proper Lutherans to church instead of to the barnyard. But its presence explains why the slow movement, as we have come to know it, is so brief.
Once under way with Martin Luther, the finale is exactly what we would expect, except the early ending of the symphony includes no grand statement of the famous hymn. Instead, Mendelssohn appears to have tacked a generic ending onto it. The symphony concludes about as unconvincingly as a good composer could manage and still be thought good.
In this format, it is no surprise, then, that the French rejected the premiere of the “Reformation” Symphony and that the composer’s sister, Fanny, referred to it in her letters as “The Beast.” But on this CD, the experience is anything but beastly!
One reads that Ola Rudner has recorded Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” Symphony with the same forces. I eagerly await!
FANFARE: Steven Kruger
Works on This Recording
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