Anyone who has even casually admired the Philadelphia Orchestra music director's concerts knows how much he is attracted to composers' late-period works, the ninth symphonies that contemplate the mysteries of the hereafter. Mendelssohn (1809-47) didn't have a late period, and, according to some accounts, had given up composing when he died. His best-known works feel so polished, so perfected they leave little room for interpretation.
"You don't like it? Even when I conduct it?" he asked with ironic hubris.
Well, he always has been one to stand behind everything he conducts. Yes, even a work like this, whose first movement seems like so much synthetic angst. But, sure enough, in the edited and polished final product on Deutsche Grammophon, the Symphony No. 1 starts sounding viable.
The second movement hasn't much memorable melodic content but does have some gracefully rendered wind solos — the hallmark of a Chamber Orchestra of Europe performance. The third movement is what draws me back to the symphony repeatedly, with an off-kilter waltz rhythm in which the mask of social respectability keeps falling off. The bustling final movement is still much ado about little. But the great third movement wouldn't mean as much without the other movements around it.
Often heard with a large, wall-of-sound Victorian-style choir, Symphony No. 2 benefits from the smaller-scale performance here, which reveals more content, and more compelling content, to the extent that this performance may be a new landmark in the piece's scant recorded history.
Some of Mendelssohn's religious works leave a funny taste, considering that he was raised in a Jewish household but was baptized Lutheran (on Bach's birthday, no less). But this performance reveals a sincerity that makes you think that piece was written from a deeply genuine place.
Mendelssohn's ever-popular Symphony No. 3 ( "Scottish") and Symphony No. 4 ("Italian") might be called tourist symphonies — works based on local color the composer soaked up on his travels, and portrayed from a safe, picturesque distance. Engaging, tuneful, and meticulously well-wrought, these symphonies often thrive on the kind of atmosphere enabled by larger symphony orchestras, which is not part of the deal on this new set.
Symphony No. 5 ("Reformation") incorporates hymns such as Martin Luther's A Mighty Fortress Is Our God and is easily the most substantial of the five, even though its severity hasn't won an audience to the extent of the sunnier Italian symphony. Often in these works, Mendelssohn embraces Bach-like fugal writing, always with great technical success but sounding more like an assignment than a heartfelt expression.