Mendelssohn: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5 (XRCD review)

Charles Munch, Boston Symphony Orchestra. JVC JMXR-24028.

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.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa