Mendelssohn Symphonies Nézet-SéguinFelix Mendelssohn

Symphonies 1-5

with Karina Gauvin: soprano I, Regula Mühlemann: soprano II, Daniel Behle: tenor

RIAS Kammerchor, Chamber Orchestra of Europe

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor

Deutsche Grammophon, 2017

For a long time, Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy has been underrated as a composer, for reasons that not always were strictly musical and that have their origin in the idealization begun after his death. His music and life were interpreted by the light of misplaced sentimentality and his involvement with Queen Victoria and the rising of anti-Semitism, demonstrated by the notorious Der Judenthum in der Musik written by Richard Wagner, cast a shadow over his production. The adverse attitude towards Mendelssohn is summarized by Friedrich Niecks, for whom the «serene beauty of Mendelssohn’s music has to most of us not the same charm as the rugged energy, the subtle thoughtfulness and morbid world-weariness of other composers. As the Romans of old took delight in the struggle and writhing agony of the gladiator, so we of the present day enjoy watching the beats and throes of the human heart as exhibited by our tone and word poets, the gladiators of modern times».

Things changed only at the end of the last century and now the interest for Mendelssohn’s production lives a revival thanks to the plenty of the surviving materials and to the beauty of music itself. From this viewpoint, a recording of Mendelssohn’s symphonies, conducted by one of the most promising conductors of our time, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, cannot but awake the interest even more.

The present recording, anyway, does not march the expectations. Indeed, the performance of the symphonies reveals immediately fine artistry, the orchestral colours are brilliant and, thanks to the detailed, rich recorded sound, the listener has the impression that the sound is surrounding him or her. The Chamber Orchestra of Europe plays very well, the RIAS Kammerchor sings with energy and skill and the burnished and elegant voice of soprano Karina Gauvin, the lovely, silvery voice of soprano Regula Mühlemann and the heartfelt, inspired singing of tenor Daniel Behle present the listener with a fine performance of the Hymn of Praise.

Despite all this, the recording is not completely satisfactory. I do not think that Nézet-Séguin lacks originality, because his rendition of Mendelssohn’s music is so fluid and sparkling that sometimes is surprising. Moreover, all the works are conducted with rare smoothness, a precious quality not only because it avoids boredom, but especially because it can be considered as the element of unity among so many, different symphonies. The problem is that not all of those I called “surprises” are pleasant. Maybe sometimes they are too bold for Mendelssohn, but I do not resolve the doubt if this is only a matter of personal taste or if what can be heard in this recording is really not truly “orthodox” because actually there is nothing that can be considered wrong, if really something like this exists in music. And yet, Nézet-Séguin’s performance is good but not memorable, precise but not weighty, energetic but not firm. In the booklet notes, the conductor states that «Mendelssohn was a genius of Mozart’s calibre. But unlike Mozart, his compositional facility damaged his reputation. It has often led him to be called superficial – without any justification», but what we hear reminds of this prejudice rather than fighting it. It is precisely that fluidity that prevents to fix the beautiful tunes that, after all, are so well played, and that condemns them to disappear with all their beauty as soon as they appear. No deeper thought seems to belong to them. Nézet-Séguin has focused only on lightness and luminosity and, after he achieved them, he has left aside any further development, though it is impossible to establish if this is a precise choice or a negligence due to lack of time. Anyway, the point is that something is irremediably lost and that loss is perfectly transparent.

For this reason, I cannot but consider Nézet-Séguin’s Mendelssohn only partially successful. The joyful spirit of Mendelssohn’s symphonies is preserved, but the regrettable paradox is that it is not completely developed, at least not in this way. After the end of the recording, the predominant feeling of “unfinished” is what remains in the listener’s ears.