Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Vibrant Mendelssohn from Pablo Heras-Casado & the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra

Mendelssohn Symphonies 3 & 4 - Pablo Heras-Casado
Mendelssohn Scottish and Italian Symphonies; Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, Pablo Heras-Casado; Harmonia Mundi
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 18 2016
Star rating: 5.0

Removing the varnish from Mendelssohn's music to reveal the brilliant young man underneath

The latest disc in Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado's series of romantic classics, Die neue Romantik: The 19th century collection with the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra on Harmonia Mundi covers Felix Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 3 in A minor, 'Scottish' and Symphony No. 4 in A major 'Italian'.

Mendelssohn disliked the terms 'Scottish' and 'Italian' when applied to his symphonies. Both had their origins in his grand tours but the Symphony No. 3, though based on ideas which occurred to him in 1830 when visiting Scotland, had to wait until 1841 to be completed. It was his last symphony, but because of the vagaries of numbering by his publishers ended up as number three! The Symphony No. 4 was inspired by Mendelssohn's Italian trip in 1830 and this time the symphony surfaced much quicker, in 1833.

This is young man's music, Mendelssohn was between 20 and 21 when he made the grand tours and when Symphony No. 3 was finally completed, Mendelssohn was still only 32. The great virtue of these performances from Pablo Heras-Casado and the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra is that by stripping the varnish of these symphonies, they allow us not only to hear timbres closer what Mendelssohn might have done, but they bring out the youthful vigour of the music. These are performances full of dramatic contrasts and romantic ethos, with lots of vivid accents and articulation. Gone is the rather smooth, young-fogey-ish image which the symphonies can sometimes have.
Symphony No. 3, Scottish, opens with the evocative Andante con moto based on themes which Mendelssohn sketched when at Holyrood. A wind dominated chorale is followed by vibrato-less strings, sombre and plangent. This introduces us to the sound-world, with the strings making a firm, yet flexible and quite wiry sound which has a vibrancy to it and an admirable lack of mannerism in the phrasing. The overall sound is far more wind dominated, and the different tang and timbres of the instruments come out. When we reach the Allegro un poco agitato speeds are fast but full of vibrant detail with moments of great excitement and terrific drama. I was rather surprised to be reminded in places of both Berlioz and Dvorak. The second movement, Vivace non troppo is transparently played, but still quite string with fine rhythmic articulation animating the whole. The plangent opening phrase of the Adagio brings out how much Heras-Casado clearly relishes the contrasts between strings and wind. With lovely long breathed phrasing from the strings, we get a great sense of the overall structure too. The final is vibrant, almost perkily so.
Symphony No. 4, Italian opens with a lovely sweep, and a great sense of detail. There is a piquancy to the playing but also a lovely sense of joy. This is playing to put a real smile on your face. As with the Symphony No. 3 it is the rhythmic verve which the players bring to the music which makes the Allegro vivace leap (almost dance) of the page. And the complex coda at the end is a complete joy. The long chorale-like melody of the Andante con moto goes with a long-breathed fluid motion, yet is full of colour. The whole movement is brimful of delicious moments of orchestral texture and colour, yet Pablo Heras-Casado does not linger overmuch and keeps things movement. The third movement, Con moto moderato sweeps along with a gracious elegance with the delicacy in the middle section reminding one of the fairies from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Finally we have the saltarello of the Presto finale, finely controlled but rhythmically exciting and full of contrasts of drama.

In both works I was able to appreciate some details of scoring which had not been apparent before. But both these symphonies reveal large scale, serious dramatic structures with vibrant detail and a great forward thrust yet never feeling driven. Speeds are not the fasted on disc (John Eliot Gardiner on LSO Live is over two minutes faster for Symphony No. 3), but the verve with which the orchestra places really makes the music swing.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) - Symphony No. 3 in A minor, 'Scottish'
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) - Symphony No. 4 in A major, 'Italian'
Pablo Heras-Casado
Freiburg Baroque Orchestra
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC902228 1CD [67.36]

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