Nézet-Séguin’s Meddlesome Mendelssohn

Review by: Victor Carr Jr


Artistic Quality: 6

Sound Quality: 9

Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s decidedly effete approach to the Mendelssohn symphonies–small forces, light textures (wrongly) avoiding string vibrato in favor of a “mewing” technique to make a sustained sound–smooths away all traces of virility from what initially can be relatively inhibited music. This is Mendelssohn in rather pathetic drag, if you can imagine such a thing, mannered and exaggerated, but without the brilliance, the glitz, or the humor.

I suppose this approach can be justified in the post-Mozartian Symphony No. 1, which comes off pretty well, but in the other works it seems as if Nézet-Séguin is less concerned with Mendelssohn than with proving his point about how early romantic music should be played. There’s nothing vaguely “romantic” about his Symphony No. 2, “Lobesgesang”. The purely instrumental movements are so dynamically inert they sound like mere incidental music (which, in a way, they actually are). Better are the choral sections, with fine work by the vocal soloists, where Nézet-Séguin just accompanies.

He does make the opening of the Scottish Symphony less lugubrious than usual, but the scherzo and finale sound contrived (as do the Italian Symphony’s first movement and finale— no bracing tarantella here!). Nézet-Séguin plays the Adagio with all the emotion of a dead fish, thus setting up already low expectations in Symphony No. 5, for which “Deformation” would be a better title. Here, we must endure this supposedly dramatic music rendered by what sounds like a few lame winds, and clutch of strings, and somebody beating on a cardboard box.

Paradoxically, the orchestral sound has a pleasing bottom-end, as the basses are generally prominent throughout. It’s uncertain whether this is the doing of the conductor or Deutsche Grammophon’s engineers; but in any case the recording is bright and clear. Overall, this production comes off more like an experiment — interesting, perhaps, if heard once, but unlikely to provide long-term satisfaction. Those desiring Mendelssohn’s symphonies played for their evident musical values are directed toward Muti, Dohnányi, and Flor.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Symphonies 3-5: Muti (EMI), Dohnanyi (Decca); Flor (RCA)

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