Mendelssohn: Symphonies – No 1 in C minor, Op 11 (includes both versions of the scherzo); No 4 in A major, Op 90 (Italian)

Reviewed on Thu 15 Sep, 2016

Impressively virtuosic as Gardiner is, he’s just a touch too impersonal for my taste. I like my Mendelssohn – and these works in particular – to sound bouncy and bushy tailed; here they too often sound as if thrown into panic.

No-one with a keen pair of ears could fail to admire the pristine results that Sir John Eliot Gardiner achieves with his well-drilled players, but these ears are also distracted by hairline dynamics, whether in crescendo or diminuendo, which in the first movement of the First Symphony effect a certain degree of breathlessness. Turn to an identically coupled rival version from roughly the same period – the far meatier Potsdam Chamber Academy under Antonello Manacorda (Sony Classical) – and affectedness gives way to genuine drama. Still Gardiner has a bonus up his sleeve with an alternative third movement (reworked from the string Octet scherzo), which Mendelssohn substituted when he found his Menuetto monotonous. Don’t quite get it myself, as the original (also included) fits the Symphony’s Mozartean minor-key sound world so perfectly, but there can be no doubt that Gardiner’s bolstered scherzo is brilliantly played. As is the super-fast finale of his Italian Symphony, though, again, Manacorda’s version achieves an extra glow overall, especially among the flutes in the broadly drawn second movement, which on the swifter LSO performance sound a little pale. Impressively virtuosic as Gardiner is, he’s just a touch too impersonal for my taste. I like my Mendelssohn – and these works in particular – to sound bouncy and bushy tailed; here they too often sound as if thrown into panic. Excellent sonics, especially on the Blu-ray option.
–Rob Cowan