Mendelssohn: Symphonies 3, 4 & 5 (CD review)

Also, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage overture; Liszt:  Les Preludes; Franck: Le Chasseur maudit. Riccardo Muti, New Philharmonia Orchestra; Philadelphia Orchestra. EMI 50999 0 97972 2 2 (2-disc set).

I've always admired the conducting of Riccardo Muti; he seems so passionate yet so precise about his music making. However, I've not always liked the sound EMI provided for him with the New Philharmonia or, especially, the Philadelphia Orchestra. The former could sometimes appear too light or thin, the latter too rough or edgy. In the present, 2011 re-release set, Muti conducts three Mendelssohn symphonies with the New Philharmonia, which the EMI engineers afford a slightly more-refined sound than with the Philadelphia, so all is well. As far as concerns the performances, they're a hit-and-miss lot. Muti's lean, fiery exactitude isn't always ideally suited to the sunny moods of Mendelssohn, yet when he's on, the music involves the listener as well as that of any conductor.

The two-disc set begins with the Symphony No. 3 in A minor "Scottish," which despite the numbering was in fact the last of the composer's five symphonies, written in 1842. Muti, usually a red-blooded conductor, actually takes the first movement at a fairly slow pace; yet he keeps it nicely taut and together, accenting the lyrical flow of the music well. Thereafter, the conductor picks up more steam, and the rest of the symphony zips along more conventionally.

The Scherzo displays plenty of infectious good cheer and charm; the Adagio has an abundance of lilting grace; and the finale is as vivacious as one could want. Would I say Muti's interpretation displaces those of Peter Maag (Decca), Bernard Haitink (Philips), Claudio Abbado (Decca or DG), or Herbert Blomstedt (Decca)? No, I wouldn't. But Muti's approach is a reasonable alternative, and at the low price of this two-disc set, given its content, it's hard to pass by.

The second item on disc one is the Symphony No. 5 "Reformation," which Mendelssohn wrote in 1830 (in reality, the second of his five symphonies). Like his first two numbered symphonies, the "Reformation" never lives up to Nos. 3 or 4, now mainstays of the classical repertoire. The composer intended the "Reformation" to celebrate the three-hundredth anniversary of the central statement of the Lutheran faith, Mendelssohn himself a devout Lutheran. Although he meant it to be obviously a solemn affair, the two middle movements are comparatively sweet and light, Muti playing the whole thing with the utmost respect and gravity.

Disc two begins with the Symphony No. 4 "Italian," premiered by Mendelssohn in 1833 after a trip to Italy but never published in his lifetime. Here, Muti is most in his element. The first movement Allegro is probably the best-recognized of all the music Mendelssohn wrote for his symphonies, and Muti handles it with a fittingly sunny dash and spring, without rushing it in the least. Music scholars think the many religious processions Mendelssohn saw in Rome may have inspired the Andante, to which Muti adds a little bounce. Then, there's a delicate minuet, treated most gracefully. And the symphony concludes with a whirlwind of music reminiscent of A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which Muti seems totally and delightedly at home.

EMI fill out the second disc with Mendelssohn's Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage overture; Franz Liszt's Les Preludes, and Cesar Franck's Le Chasseur maudit, the latter two pieces done in Philadelphia. Characteristic of this conductor, the performances are heartfelt and committed, with Les Preludes standing out for its combination of fervor and repose.

EMI made the recordings between 1975 and 1989, the symphonies earliest in Kingsway Hall and Abbey Road Studio No. 1, the shorter works by Liszt and Franck in the Old Metropolitan Opera House, Philadelphia.

The sound of the Philharmonia is ultrasmooth and a touch soft, with a healthy dynamic range. However, the midrange clarity is only average, and there is not a lot of bass or treble extension.  Orchestral imaging and depth are, too, only modest. Nevertheless, the results are quite agreeable and make for easy, nondemanding listening. While the Philadelphia sound in the final two selections is a touch brighter and not so smooth, it does provide a tad more stage depth, stereo spread, and overall transparency.


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