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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Symphony No. 4 in A, Op. 90 Italian (1831) [28:50]
Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 107 Reformation (1830) [26:53]
Tonkünstler Orchestra / Andrés Orozco-Estrada
rec. live, Goldener Saal, Musikverein, Vienna, April 2014

Andrés Orozco-Estrada’s bracing Mendelssohn performances should rouse you from whatever your current stupor. It is not that they are necessarily fast, but that the tempi feel airborne. It is also rare to hear such pointed, rhythmically alert execution so consistently maintained. If the Tonkünstler strings sound a desk or so shorter across the board than those of, say, the Vienna, Berlin, or London orchestras, their trim articulations and unified tone compensate for their relative lack of tonal weight. The woodwinds are bright and chipper. Solo trumpets and horns are similarly light and buoyant, while the brass as a choir are imposing in the climaxes.

The outer movements of the Italian are unusually fleet – the trend has been towards greater moderation – but the first benefits from Orozco-Estrada’s attention to dynamic shaping, internal stresses, and rhythmic spring; admittedly, the transition between themes has been more graceful elsewhere. The Andante con moto benefits from a steady, mobile tread and, when the violins repeat the theme, pleasingly transparent textures. The manicured phrasing of the Con moto moderato stops just short of fussiness. It sings amiably, although – oddly for a Viennese performance – it is missing a measure of wistful nostalgia. The closing Saltarello is lean and bouncy, with a volatile energy in tutti. Along the way, Orozco-Estrada draws helpful structural detail out of the subsidiary parts.

Orozco-Estrada’s Reformation is similarly forthright, on a par with Maazel’s early-stereo version (DG), which benefits from a slightly larger string body. In the introduction, the conductor ignores the “hairpins” on the wind chords – though better that than Leppard’s exaggerated swells (Erato/RCA) – but the Allegro con fuoco is firm and dramatic. The woodwinds’ crisp dotted figures bring uplift to the Allegro vivace, while the brief Andante is simple and heartfelt. From the flute’s tentative opening intonation of Ein’ feste Burg to that theme’s joyous final statement – which arrived almost before I was quite ready for it – Orozco-Estrada draws the finale in a beautiful, coherent arc, most convincingly.
If you want a fine modern coupling of these two symphonies, you need not look further than this, though it does not quite challenge the venerable accounts of Maazel, Szell, and Bernstein (the latter two both on Sony). In separate issues, Colin Davis (Philips), weightier and more rugged than most in the Italian, has the Boston Symphony providing lots of colour; Gardiner (DG) offers a polished, gleaming Reformation.

Note that the dates of composition as given in the headnote are correct: the Reformation was composed before the Italian, but, for various reasons, was not published until twenty years after Mendelssohn’s death.

Stephen Francis Vasta

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