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 Recording of the Week  John Eliot Gardiner conducts Mendelssohn and Schumann

We’re taking a trip up to Scotland this week, with two Caledonian-themed works by Felix Mendelssohn forming the basis of the latest disc from the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner.

We kick off with one of Mendelssohn’s more popular overtures, namely The Hebrides (sometimes known as Fingal’s Cave), composed in 1830 and inspired by his visit to the cave on the island of Staffa. It’s a lovely work, and the LSO strings respond beautifully to the many opportunities Mendelssohn gives them to depict the surging of waves; the cellos in particular are full of ravishing tone for the second, cantabile theme.

John Eliot Gardiner conducting the LSO
John Eliot Gardiner conducting the LSO

As you would expect from the LSO brass section, the trumpets soar and blaze when appropriate, but it’s really the woodwind who excel here: about three minutes from the end of the overture, the turbulence subsides, and there’s the most magical clarinet solo from principal clarinettist Andrew Marriner, who treats us to an almost superhuman pianissimo that’s truly sublime.

The LSO are then joined by Portuguese pianist Maria João Pires for a delicate, poised performance of Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto. Pires seems to focus on lyricism over drama, and that’s no bad thing here: it makes for a nicely serene central Intermezzo especially. She never sacrifices tone, even in the faster passages, and although some may wish for a bit more heft, for me it’s a nicely understated account that sits well between the two Mendelsssohn pieces.

It’s back to Mendelssohn then, for the main work, his Symphony No. 3, known as the Scottish. Personally I think this is a wonderful symphony, and this is an equally wonderful performance: there’s such energy, most notably in the first and last movements. The very end of the symphony is particularly rousing: once that great chorale-like melody launches the final section of the piece about two minutes from the end, the LSO give us some of their most excitingly glorious playing, and I feel obliged to mention the horns, who are even more resplendent than usual!

It’s in this symphony that Gardiner’s credentials as a proponent of so-called historically-informed performance are most evident: strings and woodwind play with a minimum of vibrato, which gives everything a clean sound. More than that, though, you may have noticed something peculiar about the LSO’s violins and violas in the picture above: Gardiner makes them perform standing up! This might look odd to modern audiences, but was much more common in Mendelssohn’s time, and it’s interesting that Gardiner has enforced that particular practice.

As a bonus, alongside the usual CD/SACD version there’s an extra Blu-Ray disc. Not only does this include everything in 24bit Pure Blu-Ray Audio, there’s also the amazing addition of the entire concert from the Barbican, as Blu-Ray Video, filmed on 21st January of this year. It’s fantastic to have this as well, and you can of course see the impact of the upstanding strings and the freedom this introduces into their playing as a result. In fact, you actually get more music than on the CD, as this video includes Pires’s post-concerto encore, a performance of Vogel als Prophet, movement seven from Schumann’s Waldszenen.

I believe this is the start of a complete cycle of Mendelssohn symphonies with Gardiner on LSO Live, and on the basis of this initial disc, I can’t wait to hear the others!

Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducts Mendelssohn & Schumann

Maria João Pires (piano), London Symphony Orchestra, John Eliot Gardiner

Available Formats: SACD + Blu-ray Audio, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC