Mendelssohn: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4 (CD review)

Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Warner Classics 2564 67391-0.

For a lot of classical music fans, conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt is not exactly the first name that would spring to mind when thinking of the music of Felix Mendelssohn (1809-47). Harnoncourt may seem more entrenched in the Baroque and Classical periods and a little too straightlaced tackling the lighter, Romantic charms of Mendelssohn. Not so, as this 2011 Warner Classics reissue of a 1991 Teldec recording demonstrates. Leading the excellent Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Harnoncourt turns in spruce and tidy performances of Mendelssohn's two most-popular symphonies.

The disc begins with the Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 56, "Scottish," 1842, the last of five symphonies Mendelssohn wrote, despite the numbering. He called it his "Scottish" symphony because he started writing it over a dozen years earlier after a visit to Scotland. It doesn't actually sound all that Scottish, though; it's more like a brief, musical impression the composer got of the country, an impression he expanded over the years.

Anyway, Harnoncourt takes his time in the first movement, creating tension without hurrying the music. Counting the repeat, this is one of the longer renditions of the opening segment I've heard.  Nevertheless, it's among of the more delightful. Then, in the Scherzo, the conductor zips along quicker than I can remember anyone doing and offers up a zesty bit of highland festivity. In the Adagio, unfortunately, Harnoncourt misses some of the work's radiant beauty, never quite moving one the way several other conductors do. He seems a little too fussy and precise. Happily, he makes up for it with a brilliantly intense finale, where he shows a good deal of passion for the music, closing the show in high style.

Now, here's the "however." While Harnoncourt's performance is genial and efficient, it does not displace my own personal favorites:  Peter Maag (Decca), Claudio Abbado (Decca or DG), Bernard Haitink (Philips), Riccardo Muti (EMI), Andre Previn (EMI), and Herbert Blomstedt (Decca).

It was in 1831, when Mendelssohn was just twenty-one, that he visited Italy and became so enthusiastic about it he began to compose his Symphony No. 4 in A major, Op. 90, "Italian," which he completed several years later. However, he never did get around to publishing his revised version of the score, which didn't see a performance until two years after his death. Yet it comes down to us as one of his most endearing and enduring works.

In the Fourth Symphony Maestro Harnoncourt goes full-bore in the beginning, generating a good deal of excitement, yet with a lovely lilt. The rest of the reading seems a bit more mundane by comparison, yet it remains impressive, especially the Presto conclusion. Still, there's always a "however," and here it's that I don't consider it superior in any way to Otto Klemperer's sunnier, more agreeable realization (EMI) or Abbado's (Decca or DG), Blomstedt's (Decca), Previn's (EMI), Charles Munch's (RCA), George Szell's (Sony), or Giuseppe Sinopoli's (DG).

Teldec recorded the performances in October of 1991 at the eighteenth-century opera house Teatro Comunale in Ferrara, Italy. The recording comes up sounding smooth and well balanced, if not too spectacular in a given department. That is, everything is neatly in its place without being outstanding in any one area. The midrange is fluid but not particularly transparent. The bass is adequate, if a touch thin and not really too deep. The highs are fine but not too sparkling or extended. The dynamic range and transient attack are OK but won't set an audiophile's heart to racing. The overall sonic impression one comes away with is that of pleasant competence at the expense of much daring.


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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