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Mendelssohn Symphonies Nos 1-5 directed by Yannick Nézet-Séguin

David Barmby

A first-rate, inspired rendering of Mendelssohn’s five superb Symphonies. Here is a remarkable manifestation of musical intent.
Mendelssohn Symphonies Nos 1-5 directed by Yannick Nézet-Séguin

From the opening bars it is clear that French-Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Chamber Orchestra of Europe together make an inspired combination for this recording project. Everyone appears to be at one in wholly advocating these valuable and highly imaginative creations. Playing on this occasion with very little vibrato and in perfect balance, the ensemble embodies the fascinating Mendelssohnian sound world straddling the Classical and Romantic that I have only heard as successfully accomplished by Philippe Herreweghe. Tuning is spot-on and ensemble rapport excellent, with beautiful phrasing evident throughout. Prominence is given by the director to Classical form that Mendelssohn obviously savoured in these works with an easy, clearly felt and articulated rhetoric emanating from every member of the ensemble. Heard in a fresh new light, there is unimpeded delight in hearing performances by this band and its fine director of works which have at times been criticised (by Wagner in particular). These very fine live recordings made in February last year in the brand new Grande Salle Pierre Boulez, Paris, are honoured with superb technical recording technique, a first-rate balance and warm blooming sound such as we expect from the distinguished yellow label.

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Formed in 1981 by young, first-rate musicians, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe retains a core of 13 players, but can expands to 60. With a now established relationship with the important Lucerne Festival, the Chamber Orchestra has worked with luminaries such as Claudio Abbado, Bernard Haitink, the late Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Vladimir Jurowski and András Schiff. Yannick Nézet-Séguin was named last year as music director of the Metropolitan Opera in New York beginning 2020 and we should look forward to his work there. The conductor is mid-way through a complete Mozart operatic recording series for Deutsche Grammophon with the ensemble.

Mendelssohn’s life came to an abrupt end after a series of strokes at the age of 38. This recording tells us clearly how grateful we must be that he left us these five splendid symphonies composed between 1824 and 1840. Although born into a Jewish family, Mendelssohn was baptised at an early age into the Reformed Christian Church, a popular and arguably necessary undertaking that offered broader career possibilities.

The large-scale choral Symphony No 2 ‘Hymn of Praise’ (Lobgesang), actually the last Symphony Mendelssohn wrote but later numbered as his second, includes a dream team of the RIAS Chamber Choir and soloists. In sum, this performance is a thrilling achievement. French-Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin has developed a warm and burnished quality in recent years and is superbly accompanied by Swiss soprano Regula Mühlemann. German tenor Daniel Behle provides a voice that is rich, clear, agile and intelligent. The movement Nun danket alle Gott is as good as it gets.

Symphonies Nos 3 ‘Scottish’ and 5 ‘Italian’ are spritely and animated with wonderfully crisp woodwind and brass. There is loveliness in the legato of the ltalian’s Menuetto - Con moto moderato and an astounding forthrightness to the finale’s Saltarello Presto. The opening brass of the Symphony No 5 Reformation is brilliant and the woodwind of Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott is genuinely startling.

Here is an outstanding manifestation of musical intent. Music to play at volume and warmly recommended.

5 stars out of 5

Mendelssohn Symphonies Nos 1-5
Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Karina Gauvin, soprano
Regula Mühlemann, soprano
Daniel Behle, tenor
RIAS Chamber Choir
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, director
Deutsche Grammophon (002675602)
Released 16 June 2017


What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

David Barmby is former head of artistic planning of Musica Viva Australia, artistic administrator of Bach 2000 (Melbourne Festival), the Australian National Academy of Music and Melbourne Recital Centre.

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