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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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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 Jon 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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa