March 16, 2006


Mendelssohn: Symphonies Nos. 3 (“Scottish”) and 5 (“Reformation”). Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Sir Colin Davis. Profil. $16.99.

     These 1997 live recordings of Mendelssohn’s Third and Fifth Symphonies are closer to reinterpretations than interpretations.  Sir Colin Davis sees these as grand, large-scale works, with little of the fleetness other conductors bring to Mendelssohn’s music.  Tempi are on the slow side here, horn and trumpet passages are emphasized to bring greater weight to the music, and occasional rubato is used to interrupt Mendelssohn’s headlong flow and turn these works into something proto-Brucknerian.

     The interpretations are fascinating and worth multiple hearings, but they are so different from the usual approach to these symphonies that they will come as something of a shock to listeners already familiar with this wonderful music.  Whether Mendelssohn needs reconsideration is debatable, but Davis certainly thinks he does, and provides him with structural integrity and solidity that thoroughly deemphasize the composer’s melodic sweetness.

     The main section of the first movement of the “Scottish,” for example, is taken at a slower tempo than usual, with Davis allowing the music to build block upon block until, by the end, it is an imposing edifice indeed.  The scherzo is quick enough, but not light, while the Adagio and finale are both painted in broad strokes that continue all the way to the end, with Davis taking the coda more slowly than most conductors do and in so doing making it the crown of the work rather than a quick throwaway ending.  There is, however, a significant oddity here: Davis uses an alternative version of the score that ends far more abruptly than this symphony normally does.  Several measures at the very end are simply missing, and along with them the reestablishment of the tonic.  Instead we get a strong chordal ending that resonates but sounds foreshortened – a very curious experience at the conclusion of a performance that otherwise spreads this music out.

     The “Reformation,” written before the “Scottish” but published later, is also a grand construction here.  It is only the finale that has overt religious content, being based on the chorale Eine feste Burg ist unser Gott.  But Davis handles the whole symphony as if he is building a musical cathedral, slowly and surely constructing a strong tower of sonic majesty, capped at the end by a triumphant full-orchestral iteration of the chorale.  Though the symphony is played more slowly than usual, it never drags, and Davis’ tempo choices allow him to bring out inner voices and details of orchestration to which other conductors give short shrift.

     This pairing would not be most listeners’ first choice of recordings of these works, but collectors accustomed to hearing Mendelssohn repeatedly handled a certain way will be highly gratified to find there is another, equally valid, more sinewy approach to these symphonies.

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