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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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 ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine 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