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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor Op. 11 [30:06]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in D minor Op. 40 [22:53]
Overture zum Märchen von der schönen Melusine Op. 32 (1832 version) [9:56]
Kristian Bezuidenhout (fortepiano)
Freiburger Barockorchester/Pablo Heras-Casado
rec. 2018, Ensemblehaus, Freiburg, Germany
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902369 [63:01]

We all have our favourite interpreters and performances of Mendelssohn; I personally was brought up listening to Kurt Masur’s classic Leipzig recordings of the symphonies, which I now own on CD (74321 20286-2). I have since expanded my collection with various other recording, but here is a performance which shines a new light on what is perhaps the composer’s most underappreciated and least known of the five symphonies, coupled with sparkling performances of the Second Piano Concerto and The Fair Melusine Overture. We have become use to the likes of the Freiburger Barockorchester bringing their expertise to the baroque repertoire, but recently the same period sensibilities and performance values have been brought to bear on music from the late Romantic period, to great success and acclaim. This disc is the latest example, and the culmination of the Freiburger Barockorchester’s survey of the symphonies.

When I want to listen to Mendelssohn, I usually turn to the Second or Fifth but the performance here could resurrect the First from neglect. Its key of C minor is often regarded as a sombre one, but it is full of Sturm und Drang, with the opening movement played at breakneck speed, helping to highlight the music’s fury. In comparison, the second movement is an oasis of calm, slow, tender music with some beautiful playing, especially from the woodwinds. The following Menuetto with its dance-like main theme is also beautifully played, the hard sticks of the timpanist bringing out every beat clearly. The final movement, with its strongly contrapuntal writing, brings back the stormier feeling of the opening movement, ending in the more heroic key of E flat Major. This performance clearly shows the lineage between this symphony and the Fifth Symphony of Mendelssohn’s hero, Beethoven, and has made me listen anew to my other recordings of it; the contrast between this and more traditional twentieth century views is marked.

The performance of the Piano Concerto No. 2 will not be to everyone’s taste, as its pared-down orchestral sound and obviously period piano might deter some people, but I find it very rewarding. Again, this work has been completely overshadowed by the First Piano Concerto, so it is good to see it getting the recognition it deserves. It is excellently performed, especially in the slow central Adagio, on an 1837 Érard fortepiano, built the same year as this work was composed and premiered in Birmingham. Kristian Bezuidenhout is expertly supported by the agile playing of the Freiburger Barockorchester, making this more of an ensemble piece in a better-balanced recording than the recent one by Ronald Brautigam (BIS-2264), where the piano sounds too far forward.

The Overture zum Märchen von der schönen Melusine is full of passion and panache, providing a fitting conclusion to both the programme here and Pablo Heras-Casado’s survey of the symphonies. The combination of excellent performances, recorded sound and booklet notes in French, English and German, makes this disc a real winner.

Stuart Sillitoe

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