Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 3 (HQCD review)

Also, Hebrides Overture. Otto Klemperer, Philharmonia Orchestra. HDTT HQCD233.

German conductor and composer Otto Klemperer had a career that spanned some seven decades, a career that went so far back he knew and was friends with Gustav Mahler. However, audiences today probably know him best from his stereo recordings with the Philharmonia and New Philharmonia Orchestras, a tenure that lasted from 1959 until his retirement in 1971 and resulted in any number of fine recordings.

Although he was a conductor whom millions of people loved, he also garnered much negative criticism. Many people continue to view him as too old fashioned, too rigid, too monumental a conductor, his music-making too ponderous and slow. Certainly, that last criticism is valid. He did offer up slower tempos as he got older, largely because he enjoyed shaping every musical phrase meticulously, taking his time about letting the music unfold as the notes informed him, often making them come alive with a strength and concentration listeners had seldom heard before. People also sometimes say his performances were unsmiling, that his interpretations were without wit or charm. To this latter criticism, I would sincerely disagree. Klemperer gave us some of the most-buoyant, most-delightful renditions possible of the German and Austrian repertoire he knew so well, particularly the music of Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Mahler, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, and Wagner. Many of his recordings of these composers are among my favorites by anyone.

Which brings us to his Mendelssohn, his stereo EMI recordings of A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Symphony No. 4 being for me at the top of the charts. If his reading of the Symphony No. 3, here remastered by HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers), isn't quite in the same exalted category, it is at least a sweet and loving tribute to the composer's love of lyric Romanticism.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) finished his Third Symphony in 1842, and despite its number, it was the last of the five symphonies he wrote. He referred to it as his "Scottish" symphony and started it over a dozen years earlier after a visit to Scotland. It's not really very Scottish, though; it's more of a brief, musical impression the composer got of the country and expanded upon through the years. Anyway, Klemperer takes the opening movement at a gentle, leisurely, flowing, always melodious gait, which may only serve to reinforce the critics' notion that the man's music making was simply slow. True, the Scherzo that follows does not come off as exuberantly under Klemperer as it does under some of his rivals, but it does maintain the same genial spirit of the preceding section. The third-movement Adagio actually moves along at a relatively quick pace, yet Klemperer never hurries it, keeping it ever graceful and fluid. It's only in the finale that Klemperer truly disappoints, the music never catching fire. While I suppose it's a part of the conductor's grand scheme, it does seem more than a tad lax, lacking much passion. Interestingly, Klemperer recorded the same symphony about a decade earlier in mono, which people claim is a more impetuous, more spontaneous, more high-spirited performance. I haven't heard it, so I can't say.

Be that as it may, even though Klemperer makes a strong case for the beauty and eloquence of the Third Symphony, I continue to prefer the recordings of Peter Maag (Decca), Claudio Abbado (Decca or DG), Herbert Blomstedt (Decca), Leonard Bernstein (Sony), Bernard Haitink (Philips), and Andre Previn (EMI) to his. Still, it's hard to knock Klemperer's calm repose.

Coupled with the symphony, we find Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture, also called Fingal's Cave, a concert overture he wrote in 1830, revising and premiering it in 1832. Here, Klemperer shows more energy than he did in the Third Symphony and provides a moving portrait of the island landscape, sea, and waves.

Recorded by EMI in 1960 and remastered by HDTT in 2011 on an HQCD, the sound is quite good.  Coincidentally, I had on hand for comparison the same symphony recording remastered by EMI Japan in 2010, also on an HQCD. Both discs are splendid, with reasonably wide dynamics, a realistic midrange, and a natural ambient bloom to the acoustic. The differences are that the newer HDTT sounds slightly smoother and fuller to me, with a marginally stronger bass response; and the EMI Japan sounds to a very small degree more open. Nevertheless, both discs could have used a little more sparkle at the top end, possibly the result of noise reduction.

After listening first to the entire HDTT disc to appreciate the performances, I switched back and forth between two CD players for the sonic comparison. While the differences I found were not huge, they did, overall, tend to favor the HDTT. Nevertheless, to its credit the EMI-Japan disc comes with Klemperer's outstanding Fourth Symphony as a companion piece, the HDTT only the Hebrides Overture. However, one has to order the EMI Japan all the way from Japan, which isn't the cheapest proposition I can think of.

For details about HDTT products, you can visit their Web site at http://www.highdeftapetransfers.com/storefront.php.

JJP

3 comments:

  1. John Puccio wrote: "... Interestingly, Klemperer recorded the same symphony (the Third) about a decade earlier in mono, which people claim is a more impetuous, more spontaneous, more high-spirited performance. I haven't heard it, so I can't say..."

    It was recorded for VOX, and it isn't all conducted by Klemperer. Time ran out on the sessions before the finale was begun; it was rescheduled for a later set of sessions. Vox, however, could not wait and saw a way to save some money besides. They hired another conductor...Herbert Haefner, never heard from before or since...to finish the symphony, without telling Klemperer. You can only imagine what Klemp's reaction was.

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  2. "The conductor Peter Heyworth wrote that Klemperer recorded the symphony up to the coda, but had to leave it there to go somewhere. He intended to record the coda when he returned. Since he had stated definitely that he was going to use his own coda, the head of Vox, George Mendelssohn, who didn't want that, had the composer's coda recorded during Klemperer's absence. When he got back, Mendelssohn (George) refused to change it. Klemperer was so enraged that he broke off relations with Vox then and there."

    --Don Tait

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  3. Er, Peter Heyworth? First time I knew he was a conductor, but he certainly wrote the greater part of what is still Klemperer's standard biography. Not, as far as I know the bit dealing with the Vox recordings, though. Is this what Don Tait is quoting? Other versions of the Klemperer- coda-Scottish-Symphony-recording- sessions story have it that it was Legge who refused to allow him to record his own coda for the Philhamonia version. And Herbert Haefner was certainly heard from on other occasions. His conucting impressed Humphrey Searle, who had no axe to grind, and he recorded Bluebeard's Castle, and the Schoenberg Second Chamber Symphony. Folk haven't heard from him because, as sometimes happens, he died young. Floreat Domus.

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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