Mendelssohn: Symphonies 3, 4 & 5 (CD review)

Also, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage overture; Liszt:  Les Preludes; Franck: Le Chasseur maudit. Riccardo Muti, New Philharmonia Orchestra; Philadelphia Orchestra. EMI 50999 0 97972 2 2 (2-disc set).

I've always admired the conducting of Riccardo Muti; he seems so passionate yet so precise about his music making. However, I've not always liked the sound EMI provided for him with the New Philharmonia or, especially, the Philadelphia Orchestra. The former could sometimes appear too light or thin, the latter too rough or edgy. In the present, 2011 re-release set, Muti conducts three Mendelssohn symphonies with the New Philharmonia, which the EMI engineers afford a slightly more-refined sound than with the Philadelphia, so all is well. As far as concerns the performances, they're a hit-and-miss lot. Muti's lean, fiery exactitude isn't always ideally suited to the sunny moods of Mendelssohn, yet when he's on, the music involves the listener as well as that of any conductor.

The two-disc set begins with the Symphony No. 3 in A minor "Scottish," which despite the numbering was in fact the last of the composer's five symphonies, written in 1842. Muti, usually a red-blooded conductor, actually takes the first movement at a fairly slow pace; yet he keeps it nicely taut and together, accenting the lyrical flow of the music well. Thereafter, the conductor picks up more steam, and the rest of the symphony zips along more conventionally.

The Scherzo displays plenty of infectious good cheer and charm; the Adagio has an abundance of lilting grace; and the finale is as vivacious as one could want. Would I say Muti's interpretation displaces those of Peter Maag (Decca), Bernard Haitink (Philips), Claudio Abbado (Decca or DG), or Herbert Blomstedt (Decca)? No, I wouldn't. But Muti's approach is a reasonable alternative, and at the low price of this two-disc set, given its content, it's hard to pass by.

The second item on disc one is the Symphony No. 5 "Reformation," which Mendelssohn wrote in 1830 (in reality, the second of his five symphonies). Like his first two numbered symphonies, the "Reformation" never lives up to Nos. 3 or 4, now mainstays of the classical repertoire. The composer intended the "Reformation" to celebrate the three-hundredth anniversary of the central statement of the Lutheran faith, Mendelssohn himself a devout Lutheran. Although he meant it to be obviously a solemn affair, the two middle movements are comparatively sweet and light, Muti playing the whole thing with the utmost respect and gravity.

Disc two begins with the Symphony No. 4 "Italian," premiered by Mendelssohn in 1833 after a trip to Italy but never published in his lifetime. Here, Muti is most in his element. The first movement Allegro is probably the best-recognized of all the music Mendelssohn wrote for his symphonies, and Muti handles it with a fittingly sunny dash and spring, without rushing it in the least. Music scholars think the many religious processions Mendelssohn saw in Rome may have inspired the Andante, to which Muti adds a little bounce. Then, there's a delicate minuet, treated most gracefully. And the symphony concludes with a whirlwind of music reminiscent of A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which Muti seems totally and delightedly at home.

EMI fill out the second disc with Mendelssohn's Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage overture; Franz Liszt's Les Preludes, and Cesar Franck's Le Chasseur maudit, the latter two pieces done in Philadelphia. Characteristic of this conductor, the performances are heartfelt and committed, with Les Preludes standing out for its combination of fervor and repose.

EMI made the recordings between 1975 and 1989, the symphonies earliest in Kingsway Hall and Abbey Road Studio No. 1, the shorter works by Liszt and Franck in the Old Metropolitan Opera House, Philadelphia.

The sound of the Philharmonia is ultrasmooth and a touch soft, with a healthy dynamic range. However, the midrange clarity is only average, and there is not a lot of bass or treble extension.  Orchestral imaging and depth are, too, only modest. Nevertheless, the results are quite agreeable and make for easy, nondemanding listening. While the Philadelphia sound in the final two selections is a touch brighter and not so smooth, it does provide a tad more stage depth, stereo spread, and overall transparency.



  1. Are these a different Muti/NPO set of the symphonies than the ones reviewed here: ? There seems to be quite a discrepancy between your reactions to the two of them.

  2. :) Thanks, James. I had meant to delete the older review of the older set and, obviously, forgot. I did think both sets were quite good, especially for the money.



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.

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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