Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto (CD review)

Also, Hebrides Overture and Scottish Symphony. Joseph Swensen, conductor & violin; Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Linn Echo BKD 216.

Sometimes, not for lack of trying, I miss the best recordings, at least the first time around. Fortunately, record companies often rerelease their best material, as Linn Records did here with their recording of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, Hebrides Overture, and Scottish Symphony with Joseph Swensen and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. The performances and sound are a delight.

Maestro Swensen begins the program with the concert overture The Hebrides (or “Fingal’s Cave”), Op. 26, which German composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) wrote in 1830 after a walking tour of England and Scotland. Swensen and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra do a fine job capturing the rugged grandeur of the Scottish coast, yet they don't do it at the expense of making the music sound more exciting or more melodramatic than it really is. This colorful yet relaxed approach to the score sets the tone for the rest of the items on the program, Swensen building his drama slowly and carefully, so that when the music does reach its climactic moments, it's all the more exhilarating for it.

Next we hear the Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64. Premiered in 1845, it was Mendelssohn’s last big-scale orchestral work. Swensen not only leads the orchestra, he plays the solo part in the concerto. In both his conducting and his playing Swensen is passionate about his subject. The violin exudes a sweeter, more-intense feeling, especially in the melancholic areas, than we normally hear. What's more, he seems better able to create a sustained flowing line than most conductors, giving the concerto a strong unifying theme. Under Swensen the music appears more emotionally secure than ever, a great outpouring of soul and sentiment that no doubt reflected both Mendelssohn's severe depression and exuberant confidence at the time of its composition.

Finally, we get the Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 64. Completed in 1842, it would be Mendelssohn’s last of five symphonies, even though he published it third and thus the numbering we’ve got. A visit to the ruins of a chapel at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh inspired him to write the music. Even though the composer himself referred to the work as his “Scotch” or “Scottish” symphony (he couldn’t seem to make up his own mind about the title but today we generally refer to it with the more politically correct “Scottish”), he never directly quotes any actual Scottish folk tunes. Yet there is a distinctly “Scottish” mood and feeling about the piece that easily reminds us of the Scottish countryside. Of course, that didn’t stop Robert Schumann, when mistakenly thinking he was listening to the Mendelssohn’s Fourth Symphony, from declaring that the Third perfectly mirrored the Italian landscape.

Anyway, After a relatively dark introduction, Swensen practically attacks the score, breathing life into every note, creating fresh, exuberant energy wherever the music takes him. Nevertheless, despite some zippy tempos, he is flexible enough to make the slower contrasts count, and he never impedes the music's onward course.

There are a few other conductors I admire in this work: Peter Maag (Decca and Classic Compact Discs) for his unequalled spirit, Claudio Abbado (DG, but particularly in his earlier Decca recording) for his sheer energy, and Otto Klemperer (EMI/Warner) for his delightfully dignified charm. Still, Swensen loses very little in comparison and brings his own personal touches into play--his obvious compassion, his conviction, his apparent joy and enthusiasm in the score. I found his work in all three Mendelssohn pieces a pleasure.

Producer Andrew Keener and engineer Philip Hobbs recorded the music at Usher Hall, Edinburgh, UK in July 2002, and Linn Records originally released it on CD and SACD in 2003-04. The company rereleased the CD reviewed here in 2014. The audio is gorgeous, maybe the best sound yet afforded these works by anyone. The sound has depth and breadth, dimensionality, air, ambience, you name it. If it contributes to the overall realistic effect of this recording, you can find it here.

By coincidence, my wife and I were fortunate enough to hear the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra perform the Third Symphony live at Zellerbach Hall on the campus of UC Berkeley about a week or so before listening to this recording. In listening to the CD, I was struck by how natural it sounded, how very much like the live performance it appeared. Even the perspective seemed right: a center-row seat at a modest but still close distance from the orchestra. The Linn sound was not unlike my recent experience at Zellerbach--a comfortable, detailed, widespread, dynamic, lifelike affair.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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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.

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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