Mendelssohn: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5 (XRCD review)
There is certainly no dearth of good Mendelssohn Fourths available these days (Abbado, Blomstedt, Sinopoli, and Klemperer are among my favorites), but one of the earliest great stereo versions and one of my first recollections of the piece is this one by Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony, recorded in 1958. Coupled with an equally good Mendelssohn Fifth Symphony from 1957, the album would be an easy recommendation if it weren't so expensive. But you get what you pay for.
Munch's interpretation of the "Italian" Symphony has all the forward drive you could want, with plenty of adrenaline flowing in the famous first movement. What surprised me, though, was how much I liked the accompanying "Reformation." I don't suppose it should have surprised me; it's a splendid piece of music. I just keep thinking of it in terms of its slow, grave opening movement, rather than its wonderfully light second movement Allegro, a movement that harks back to the "Scottish" Symphony in its delightful, folksy simplicity. Needless to say, Munch makes the most of it.
RCA make the album available in their "Living Stereo" line, but if you're willing to look for a European import, JVC offer it here, remastering it as well or better than it has ever been available to the public before. Like other Munch editions, there are things to like about the sound and things maybe not to like. It is an exceptionally vivid recording, with plenty of clarity in the midrange and treble and some solid, well-defined bass. On the minus side, it can also be a tad hard and bright. And like many of RCA's "Living Stereo" recordings of the time, there is a wide stereo spread that sometimes borders on leaving a hole in the middle. (Although it doesn't, it can seem that way.) During quieter passages you may also notice some noise; not tape hiss exactly but more like tape deterioration. Most of the time it's masked by the music itself, so it's not much of a distraction.
I said it was expensive: A list price of about $36 for a single disc holding fifty-three minutes of music, total. JVC take a good deal of care in their remasterings, and they make you pay through the nose for it. Still, they're making what to my ears are some of the best-sounding masterings of classical music around. This one from Munch is a classic from way back, and paying the price may one's only chance of getting it done absolutely right. Or, at the price, you'd better convince yourself it's right.
William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer
Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.
The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.