On the face of it, the repertoire chosen for this concert by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Antonello Manacorda seemed intriguing: two symphonies, one French and one German, composed in the same year of 1842. Louise Farrenc and Felix Mendelssohn were born just five years apart and both studied with Ignaz Moscheles. At the time, the symphonic form was pretty much the exclusive province of Central European composers (Berlioz notwithstanding). So, even though Farrenc was Parisian, it shouldn’t be too surprising if her Symphony no. 1 in C minor sounds Germanic.

Antonella Manacorda
© Nadja Sjöström

But Farrenc really went all-in crossing the Rhine when she composed this symphony, so much that the work could very well have been subtitled Teutonia and not be far off the mark. The fingerprints of Schubert, Beethoven – and yes, Mendelssohn – are all over this symphony, but unfortunately not the invention. Instead, the music sounds predictable and formulaic. Melodic lines are less-than-memorable, save for the opening theme of the second movement Adagio cantabile, which is where Farrenc drops the Germanic posturing momentarily to let in some Parisian charm. Otherwise, it’s Sturm und Drang pretty much everywhere. In the third movement Menuetto moderato there’s an effective theme à la Schubert along with an engaging Trio, but the final movement returns to convince us that this music is, at best, a finely crafted exercise in Austro-German academicism.

Unfortunately, Manacorda’s approach to the Farrenc Symphony played up the melodramatic aspects of a score that, if anything, needs a tempering hand at the helm. This was an unsubtle interpretation where so many passages were stuck in one gear (“forceful and loud”), that the end result was music that seemed even less convincing than it should be.

The performance of Mendelssohn “Scottish” Symphony that followed didn’t do the Farrenc any favors, either, its juxtaposition underscoring the genius behind Mendelssohn’s creation. Manacorda conducts this symphony often and has also recorded it, no doubt giving him the familiarity to develop musical insights regarding the score. Those insights were most evident in the highly effective second movement Vivace, robust and finely controlled, with nicely articulated woodwinds. In the third movement Adagio, a lovely opening led to some emotionally satisfying contrasts, if a little too Brucknerian in the climaxes. The outer movements weren’t as successful, where too often the tendency was to plow straight ahead, with insufficient poetry in the musical expression. Mendelssohn benefits greatly from nuance; instead, the trumpets and horns throughout the final movement of this Scottish had all the finesse of an oncoming freight train.

Antonello Manacorda conducts the RSPO
© Nadja Sjöström

Notwithstanding any misgivings one might have had about the musical interpretation, the Stockholm players did their best to deliver technically outstanding performances. Particularly winsome were the solo clarinet passages in the first and last movements of the Farrenc as well as in the second and fourth movements of the Mendelssohn. Also notable were the impressive crescendo/decrescendo swells of the strings and timpani in the first movement of the Scottish.

A further word about the musical direction. At their best, concerts showcase the music first, the musicians second, and the conductor third. Here, the conductor was front-and-center in every sense of the term, engaging in such extensive pointing, gesticulating, swooping and other physical gestures that it got in the way of musical enjoyment. Artists of the caliber of the RSPO do not need “interpretive dancing” on the podium to deliver on a conductor's vision – and neither does the audience. I closed my eyes after a while as it was the best coping solution.

This performance was reviewed from the KonserthusetPlay video stream

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