The 200th anniversary of Mendelssohn’s birth has come and gone, without having produced much excitement on the recording front. Leaving us to wonder: Where are today’s Mendelssohnians?
Well, one seems to be right where you would expect—at the helm of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, which Mendelssohn led from 1835 until his death in 1847. Riccardo Chailly has recorded a lot of Mendelssohn’s music since taking charge of the orchestra in 2005. Here he trots out early versions of two Mendelssohn masterpieces, and a speculative realization of what might have become the composer’s third piano concerto.
The Scottish Symphony is presented in the form in which it was heard at its London premiere, with Mendelssohn conducting, on June 13, 1842. (This was the symphony’s second performance— Mendelssohn conducted the first one, too, in Leipzig, on March 3, 1842.) In this version there are 39 bars that Mendelssohn cut from the first and fourth movements when the score was published in 1843; the orchestration of another 49 bars, in those same two movements, differs somewhat from the published version. As a bonus, Chailly gives us the 16-bar sketch of the first movement’s opening idea that Mendelssohn made after a visit to Edinburgh’s Holyrood Palace in July of 1829. In effect, we get the musical “snapshot” from which this great symphonic portrait was developed, and the first (or second) test print, both welcome additions to the discography.
Even more welcome is the 1830 “Rome” version of the Hebrides Overture, Mendelssohn’s first crack at the piece, and very different from what, after multiple revisions, he allowed to be published in 1834-35. We find much more of the joyous high spirits of the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream in these pages; as revised, the piece became darker and more foreboding, and much more organic. Bothered that the development smacked “more of counterpoint than of whale oil, seagulls, and cod pickled in brine,” Mendelssohn tightened some passages, excised repetitive bars and gestures, and put more punch into the ending. Here we get to appreciate how judiciously he shaped his original ideas into a masterwork.
What is billed as Piano Concerto No. 3, in E minor, is an altogether different matter. The work’s first and second movements exist in short score, with some orchestration cues; the solo part is complete only to the end of the first movement. Things get sketchy in the Andante, and more so in the finale. The realization by Marcello Bufalini heard here, with Roberto Prosseda as the soloist, is thus well-intentioned guesswork, worth hearing once—but a discard, not a real “discovery.”
The recordings reflect the fresh stamp Chailly has put on the Gewandhaus. Gone is the thicker, darker, more Brahmsian sound the orchestra produced in this music a generation ago. In its place, a sound more suited to the first half of the 19th century—leaner strings, a wind and brass palette that is lighter but brighter. Decca’s sonics are spacious and put the orchestra in a good light, enough to wonder—if Chailly and the Gewandhaus record the standard versions of the symphony and overture, might they displace Peter Maag’s still- outstanding treatments with the LSO, and Christian Thielemann’s beautifully limned Hebrides with the Vienna Philharmonic?