Mendelssohn: Symphonies Nos. 3 & 4 (CD review)

Claudio Abbado, London Symphony Orchestra. HDTT remastered.

The late Italian conductor Claudio Abbado (1933-2014) was an enormously prolific musician, recording as music director of the La Scala Opera orchestra, the London Symphony, the Chicago Symphony, the Vienna State Opera orchestra, the Lucerne Festival orchestra, the European Union Youth Orchestra, and the Berlin Philharmonic. It's a wonder he had time to breathe.

In any case, as you might guess, he recorded some material more than once as he went along, including Mendelssohn's two most-popular symphonies, Nos. 3 and 4. First he did them for Decca in 1968 and then for DG in the mid 80's, both with the London Symphony. For good measure, he did No. 4 yet again for Sony with Berlin in the mid 90's. What we have in the present disc is a recent transfer of the Decca recordings of Nos. 3 and 4 from HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers), and because I have always preferred these earlier Abbado recordings to his newer ones, I welcome the HDTT transfer wholeheartedly.

German composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) completed his Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 56 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.

The music begins with a lyrical opening movement, picks up steam with an infectious Scherzo, then a liltingly graceful Adagio, and a vivacious finale. Maestro Abbado and the London Symphony add a zip and flair to the music, an energy that most other conductors only hint at. Although he doesn't exactly skip over the more-poetic aspects of the music, he tends to emphasize the sparkle and pizzazz more. Abbado's realization of the score is one that keeps the listener involved at all times.

This is not to say, however, that I favor Abbado's reading over all others. My own number-one choice continues to be an even older recording (1960) by Peter Maag, also with the LSO. Maag seems to capture the charm and delight of the music better than any conductor before or since. But not to worry: HDTT have it covered, too, with their own excellent transfer of the Maag recording.

Claudio Abbado
Mendelssohn premiered his Symphony No. 4 "Italian" in 1833 after a trip to Italy, but he never published it in his lifetime. The first movement Allegro is probably the best-recognized of all the music Mendelssohn wrote for his symphonies, filled with sunny good cheer and zest. For the second-movement Andante, music scholars think the many religious processions Mendelssohn saw in Rome may have inspired him. Then, the composer gives us a delicate minuet, followed by a conclusion of whirlwind proportions and a glitter reminiscent of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Here, too, Abbado provides a fresh, dynamic, invigorating approach, with the conductor giving the music's more openly exciting moments perhaps a little greater weight than the more sensitive ones. In both symphonies the London Symphony plays with a uniform spontaneity and spotless ensemble.

So, would I recommend Abbado's "Italian" over all others? Again, not quite. His recording is good, but I'm happy with it as a companion, a complement, to Otto Klemperer's 1960 recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI). Klemperer takes a more leisurely approach to the score but one that to my ear captures more of the bright Italian landscape.

Decca Records producer John Mordler and engineer Kenneth Wilkinson recorded the symphonies in February 1968 at Kingsway Hall, London. HDTT transferred the music from a 15ips 2-track tape in 2017.

But here's the thing. It was just back in 2007 that the Decca folks themselves re-released the music in a 96kHz/24-bit remastering. So the question now is which to buy. On the one hand, you may find the Decca remastering very slightly clearer, better focused, but you may also find it a touch harder sounding and a bit more difficult to find as Decca have apparently removed it from the catalogue. On the other hand, you may not think the HDTT transfer sounds much different from Decca's own, and you'd be right. In a level-matched comparison using two separate machines, I could hardly tell the difference. More important, you'll find the HDTT product more readily available in a variety of formats on disc or digital download.

Anyway, the sound (be it from HDTT or Decca) is big and bold in the old Decca tradition. There's a good deal of room ambience from Kingsway Hall, which lends a note of reality to the recording. Depth perception is moderately good, and instrument detailing is fine, if a tad rounded in the spacious environment. You get imaging typical of the era, too, a tad close-up and compartmentalized, with excellent left-to-right stereo spread. It all works out and offers a fairly natural representation of a concert hall sound.

For further information on HDTT products, prices, discs, and downloads in a variety of formats, you can visit their Web site at http://www.highdeftapetransfers.com/.

JJP

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

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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.

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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa