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

John Eliot Gardiner, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. DG 289 459 156 2.

There is certainly no dearth of good Mendelssohn Fourth Symphonies around, what with Abbado (DG and Decca), Blomstedt (Decca), Klemperer (EMI), Munch (RCA and JVC), Sinopoli (DG), Previn (EMI), Bernstein (Sony), and many others. But John Eliot Gardiner's disc comes with a new twist: He gives us not only the familiar original version but the revised version as well.

Apparently, German composer, pianist, conductor, and organist Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) was a compulsive tinkerer and reviser, saying to a friend, "In everything I have written down there is at least as much deleted as there is allowed to stand." A year or two after the premiere of his Fourth Symphony, he reworked the last three movements. He never got around to the first movement--he said he would have to redo everything about it--nor did he ever publish his revisions. In any event, in the Gardiner disc we now have both versions, and upon close inspection there is a myriad of detail changes in those last three movements, the most obvious on this recording being a clarifying of the orchestration to provide greater transparency of sound. 

John Eliot Gardiner
Gardiner directs the Vienna Philharmonic with verve and bounce, reminding us of his period-instrument, historically informed background, yet he imparts a characteristic grace and smoothness, too. And, needless to say, the Vienna players respond splendidly, proving once again why the VPO is among the world's greatest orchestras. The results are infectious, and the performance deserves to stand alongside the best in the catalogue.

The sound of this 1999 release, however, is another story, somewhat overwrought, too warmly reverberant to convey fully the lighter spirits of the work. In this regard, I prefer Claudio Abbado's early Decca recording best of all, especially as remastered by HDTT. In any case, those who would buy the Gardiner recording probably would do so because they like the man's work or because they want to compare Mendelssohn's two versions of the symphony.

Accompanying the Fourth Symphony is Mendelssohn's Fifth, actually the second in order of composition. It is a common companion to the Fourth on disc, and one can find both of them on Abbado's DG disc at a slightly lower cost. If the sound of the Gardiner were more transparent, I would not hesitate to recommend it as a personal first choice. As it stands, it is a fine curiosity and a worthy adjunct to other favored recordings.


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