It is a genuine pleasure to take a deep dive into these remarkably diverse and interesting symphonies, especially when they are played (and sung) with such enthusiastic vigour and passion as they are here. Photos of Canada’s latest star, the charismatic Montrealer Yannick Nézet-Séguin, adorn the cover and several of the inside pages of the booklet; quotes from the maestro pepper the informative liner notes, such as “what I always admire in Mendelssohn, over and over again, are his abilities as a melodist.” You can’t argue with success and it’s clear that Deutsche Grammophon are milking their exclusive partnership with Nézet-Séguin. They have a winner with this smart and attractive recording.
The Chamber Orchestra of Europe was founded in 1981 by young graduates of the European Union Youth Orchestra. This recording was a result of a week of concerts under Nézet-Séguin’s baton, in the Philharmonie in Paris in February 2016. It has the vitality of a live performance, with fine playing from all the sections.
The numbering of Mendelssohn’s symphonies does not reflect their chronology. Their true order is 1-5-4-2-3. This doesn’t matter, though, as there is a stylistic homogeneity that runs through all five. Clear counterpoint, rugged drama hearkening back to Haydn’s Sturm und Drang (most notably in the last movement of the Fourth), nostalgic beauty and yes, those attractive melodies.
The collaboration between Nézet-Séguin and the COE shines in each of these works. The pacing and tempi illuminate the structure and breadth of Mendelssohn’s expression. There are highlights in all five symphonies: the great journeys of the First and Third, the exuberance of the Fourth, Baroque religiosity of the Fifth.
For me, the greatest achievement of this disc is the superb performance of the Second Symphony or Hymn of Praise (Lobgesang). On the surface, it’s a strange work: symphony? Cantata? Oratorio? There are obvious comparisons to be made with Beethoven’s Ninth (which don’t favour Mendelssohn), but – taken on its own and knowing that it was written as an occasional work to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press – the piece is an irrepressible celebration of life and intelligence. Nézet-Séguin, the RIAS Kammerchor and three fabulous soloists (including Canada’s Ruby Award-winning luminous diva, Karina Gauvin) raise the roof in a sincere and joyful rendering of a unique score.