Mendelssohn: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 3 (SACD review)

Andrew Manze, NDR Radiophilharmonie. Pentatone PTC 5186 595.

Mendelssohn's Third "Scottish" and Fourth "Italian" Symphonies get most of the love, with No. 4 probably just edging out No. 3 in the number of recordings made over the years. More recently, No. 5 "Reformation" has gotten some attention, but Nos. 1 and 2 "Hymn of Praise" get hardly a nod from the record companies, with No. 1 getting the least notice of all. So, while it's always nice to hear another recording of the "Scottish" Symphony, it's even nicer that conductor Andrew Manze chose to couple it with the little First Symphony.

So, the program begins with the Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 11, by German composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). Now, what's the story with this largely forgotten little piece? Well, for starters, Mendelssohn wrote it in 1824 when he was only fifteen years old. He premiered it at a private concert the same year to honor his sister Fanny's nineteenth birthday, but he didn't publish the work until 1831. Although it is brief at just over half an hour, it contains the usual zest we often associate with the composer, with an added dose of Mozart along with it.

Under Maestro Manze, the opening Allegro Molto is just that, very quick, and filled with a heady degree of energy. If anything, Manze sounds a tad too serious, yet it does set the tone for a vigorous performance. The slow movement is sweet respite, and Manze takes it at an appropriately leisurely pace, although it still seems rather staid to me. The third movement Minuetto proceeds like the rest of the performance at a steady if too solemn gait. Manze takes the finale as speedily as he does the whole work, but the approach works best here and ends the music on a driving note.

Then it's on to more-familiar territory with the Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 56. Mendelssohn completed it in 1842, the last of five symphonies he 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.

Here, Manze is not as genial as a few other conductors have been with this music, and I wouldn't say he handles it better than some of my favorite conductors in this piece. In particular, I've always enjoyed Peter Maag and the LSO (Decca), Bernard Haitink and the London Philharmonic (Philips), Claudio Abbado and the London Symphony (on either his earlier Decca or later DG recording), Joseph Swensen and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (Linn), Herbert Blomstedt and San Francisco Symphony (Decca), and Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic (Sony), among others.

Andrew Manze
Manze provides a nice lilt to the opening Andante, even if it appears again a bit too solemn to my ears, opening it up into a full head of steam as it progresses. The second movement zips along with a cheerful good grace. The lovely Adagio flows lyrically along, making a smooth transition into its dirgelike second subject and back again. Although it's a mite brisker than usual, it is in keeping with the rest of Manze's interpretation, which tends to the spry side. Manze ends the symphony with another fairly vigorous reading that we ought to be used to by this point. In all, the conductor injects the music with a hearty spirit while maybe losing a little something of the work's warmth and charm along the way.

Producer Matthias Ilkenhans, supervisor and digital editor Rita Hermeyer, and engineer Martin Lohmann recorded the album at Grosser Sendesaal des NDR Landesfunkaus Hannover, Germany in January 2016. They made the hybrid recording for SACD multichannel and two-channel stereo playback via an SACD player as well as two-channel stereo via a regular CD player. I listened in two-channel SACD.

There is a considerable amount of ambiant reflections around the sound of the orchestra, almost too much. It may sound realistic in multichannel, but in two-channel stereo it somewhat obscures the audio. Still, it's not distracting, and the overall sonic image is impressively dynamic. Upper mids tend to be a trifle hard and edgy at times, with a slightly elevated upper bass. It's also a bit closer than I prefer. Otherwise, there's fair amount of naturalness in the recording and a decent amount of orchestral depth.

Pentatone do up the disc with a standard SACD case, further enclosed in a light-cardboard slipcover. I'm still not sure what purpose a slipcover actually serves, but it does provide a handsome packaging feature.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow:


  1. Hi, the Haitink Mendelssohn 3 is with London Philharmonic, not Concertgebouw. Regards, Thomas

  2. Thanks, Thomas. Force of habit with writing about Haitink, I guess. :)


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