Mendelssohn: Symphonies Nos. 4 & 5 (SACD review)

Andrew Manze, NDR Radiophilharmonie. Pentatone PTC 5186 611.

The last time I heard English conductor and violinist Andrew Manze doing Mendelssohn, it was in the First and Third Symphonies, where his propensity for zippy, early music practice produced a pair of exciting but, for me, not entirely persuasive performances. Continuing his Mendelssohn series, here he and the German radio orchestra NDR Radiophilharmonie tackle the popular Fourth Symphony and the more solemn Fifth. Although the disc would not displace my own old favorites, for Mendelssohn fans it might still provide a worthwhile listen.

First up on the program is the Symphony No. 4 in A, Op. 90 "Italian," which Mendelssohn wrote after a trip to Italy and premiered 1833. The first movement Allegro is among the most recognizable of all the music Mendelssohn wrote for his symphonies. Then, music scholars think that the many religious processions Mendelssohn saw in Rome may have inspired the second-movement Andante. There follows a delicate minuet, and the work concludes with a whirlwind of music reminiscent of the composer's Midsummer Night's Dream.

Despite my initial reservations that Manze's historical-performance inclinations might lead him to tempos at a more robust gait than I like, he actually takes things at a reasonably pleasant, if sometimes exhilarating pace. With well-judged dynamic inflections and an orchestra that seems to follow his every direction, the result in the first movement is as sunny as any, if a tad dark and billowy due to the recording's pronounced ambient bloom.

Manze emphasizes the staccato motif of the second movement at perhaps a headier stride than other conductors often take, yet it seems to fit the strapping dimensions for the piece the conductor envisions. The rhapsodic elements of the third movement come to the fore under Manze, too, and he makes it a welcome contrast to the preceding parade-like passages. Then, the conductor provides a fittingly high-spirited finale that seems only mildly rushed.

Andrew Manze
Compared to the ebullient "Italian" symphony, the Fifth can appear positively grave. Interestingly, the Fifth, finished in 1830, was actually only the second symphony Mendelssohn wrote. However, the composer couldn't complete it in time for a commission and never liked it much, anyway, refusing in his lifetime to allow its publication, which didn't occur until some twenty-nine years after his death. (For those interested, the order of composition for Mendelssohn's symphonies is 1, 5, 4, 2, and 3.)

Mendelssohn's sister Fanny dubbed No. 5 in D Minor, Op. 107 the "Reformation Symphony" because its subject matter celebrated the Protestant Reformation. The composer wrote it, as I said, on commission--for some festivities in Berlin, but ill health prevented him from completing it and he finally premiered it in 1832. After a somber opening movement, the symphony moves to a much-lighter Allegro vivace and a lyrical Andante, all culminating in a finale based on Martin Luther's chorale "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott" ("A mighty fortress is our God").

Here, Manze's big-scale yet intimate-feeling approach works quite well. His "Reformation" doesn't have the ponderous dimensions that some conductors seem to impose on it. Instead, it comes out more cohesive, more of a whole, tying the opening movements more closely to the last, giving the little Allegro its sprightly due and the Andante a gentle lilt. It all builds, of course, to that final chorale, which Manze handles splendidly, building and magnifying with a dignified grandeur.

So, could I say that Manze's performance of the "Italian" symphony strikes my fancy more than several of my old favorites? Not exactly. My two favorites (among others) in the "Italian" could not be more different from one another nor more different from Manze's interpretation. They are the recordings by Claudio Abbado in his earlier Decca rendering and Otto Klemperer in his EMI reading. Both continue to strike me as having more sheer joy, zest, and charm than anybody else's. In the "Reformation," though, Manze is no doubt as good as anybody, and his realization should greatly please fans of the work.

Producers Renaud Loranger and Matthias Llkenhans and engineer Martin Lohmann recorded the symphonies in the Grober Sendesaal desNDR Landesfunkhaus in January 2016 and February 2017. 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.

The sound is much the same as Pentatone delivered for Manze's previous Mendelssohn disc, so I'll repeat what I said of it: There is a good deal of ambient reflection around the orchestra, almost too much. The reflections may sound realistic in multichannel, but in two-channel stereo they can be overmuch and somewhat obscure inner detailing. Still, it's not too distracting, and the overall sonic image is impressively dynamic. To be fair, there's enough of a lifelike quality about the sound to satisfy most listeners.

As always with these things, the Pentatone folks do up the disc with a standard SACD case, further enclosed in a light-cardboard slipcover. My bewilderment continues, though, over what purpose a slipcover actually serves, but it is a handsome packaging feature, redundant or not. I wish I could say the same for the minimalist design of the album/booklet cover.


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

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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 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.
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 simple-minded, 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 Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. 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 LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. 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.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa