Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 3 (HQCD review)

Also, Hebrides Overture. Otto Klemperer, Philharmonia Orchestra. HDTT HQCD233.

German conductor and composer Otto Klemperer had a career that spanned some seven decades, a career that went so far back he knew and was friends with Gustav Mahler. However, audiences today probably know him best from his stereo recordings with the Philharmonia and New Philharmonia Orchestras, a tenure that lasted from 1959 until his retirement in 1971 and resulted in any number of fine recordings.

Although he was a conductor whom millions of people loved, he also garnered much negative criticism. Many people continue to view him as too old fashioned, too rigid, too monumental a conductor, his music-making too ponderous and slow. Certainly, that last criticism is valid. He did offer up slower tempos as he got older, largely because he enjoyed shaping every musical phrase meticulously, taking his time about letting the music unfold as the notes informed him, often making them come alive with a strength and concentration listeners had seldom heard before. People also sometimes say his performances were unsmiling, that his interpretations were without wit or charm. To this latter criticism, I would sincerely disagree. Klemperer gave us some of the most-buoyant, most-delightful renditions possible of the German and Austrian repertoire he knew so well, particularly the music of Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Mahler, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, and Wagner. Many of his recordings of these composers are among my favorites by anyone.

Which brings us to his Mendelssohn, his stereo EMI recordings of A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Symphony No. 4 being for me at the top of the charts. If his reading of the Symphony No. 3, here remastered by HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers), isn't quite in the same exalted category, it is at least a sweet and loving tribute to the composer's love of lyric Romanticism.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) finished his Third Symphony in 1842, and despite its number, it was the last of the five symphonies he wrote. He referred to it as his "Scottish" symphony and started it over a dozen years earlier after a visit to Scotland. It's not really very Scottish, though; it's more of a brief, musical impression the composer got of the country and expanded upon through the years. Anyway, Klemperer takes the opening movement at a gentle, leisurely, flowing, always melodious gait, which may only serve to reinforce the critics' notion that the man's music making was simply slow. True, the Scherzo that follows does not come off as exuberantly under Klemperer as it does under some of his rivals, but it does maintain the same genial spirit of the preceding section. The third-movement Adagio actually moves along at a relatively quick pace, yet Klemperer never hurries it, keeping it ever graceful and fluid. It's only in the finale that Klemperer truly disappoints, the music never catching fire. While I suppose it's a part of the conductor's grand scheme, it does seem more than a tad lax, lacking much passion. Interestingly, Klemperer recorded the same symphony about a decade earlier in mono, which people claim is a more impetuous, more spontaneous, more high-spirited performance. I haven't heard it, so I can't say.

Be that as it may, even though Klemperer makes a strong case for the beauty and eloquence of the Third Symphony, I continue to prefer the recordings of Peter Maag (Decca), Claudio Abbado (Decca or DG), Herbert Blomstedt (Decca), Leonard Bernstein (Sony), Bernard Haitink (Philips), and Andre Previn (EMI) to his. Still, it's hard to knock Klemperer's calm repose.

Coupled with the symphony, we find Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture, also called Fingal's Cave, a concert overture he wrote in 1830, revising and premiering it in 1832. Here, Klemperer shows more energy than he did in the Third Symphony and provides a moving portrait of the island landscape, sea, and waves.

Recorded by EMI in 1960 and remastered by HDTT in 2011 on an HQCD, the sound is quite good.  Coincidentally, I had on hand for comparison the same symphony recording remastered by EMI Japan in 2010, also on an HQCD. Both discs are splendid, with reasonably wide dynamics, a realistic midrange, and a natural ambient bloom to the acoustic. The differences are that the newer HDTT sounds slightly smoother and fuller to me, with a marginally stronger bass response; and the EMI Japan sounds to a very small degree more open. Nevertheless, both discs could have used a little more sparkle at the top end, possibly the result of noise reduction.

After listening first to the entire HDTT disc to appreciate the performances, I switched back and forth between two CD players for the sonic comparison. While the differences I found were not huge, they did, overall, tend to favor the HDTT. Nevertheless, to its credit the EMI-Japan disc comes with Klemperer's outstanding Fourth Symphony as a companion piece, the HDTT only the Hebrides Overture. However, one has to order the EMI Japan all the way from Japan, which isn't the cheapest proposition I can think of.

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