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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 56 (Scottish) (1841-2) [44:16]
Symphony No. 4 in A major, Op. 90 (Italian)^ (1833) [29:13]
Symphony No. 5 in D major, Op. 107 (Reformation)+ (1830-2) [32:06]
The Hebrides (Fingal's Cave), Op. 26* (1830/2) [9:32]
Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt, Op. 27* (1828) [11:27]
Athalie, Op. 74: Overture* (1845) [9:20]
Die Heimkehr aus der Fremde, Op. 89: Overture* (1829) [7:48]
Ruy Blas, Op. 95: Overture* (1839) [7:28]
New Philharmonia Orchestra/Riccardo Muti, *Moshe Atzmon
rec. October 1975, +January 1979, Kingsway Hall, London; *August 1974 and ^July and September 1976, Abbey Road, London
EMI CLASSICS GEMINI 3817882 [76:27 + 74:52]
Experience Classicsonline

Veteran collectors, especially in the U.S., may be interested in this convenient "Gemini" twofer, including as it does an overture collection that never saw Stateside distribution, along with Riccardo Muti's Scottish Symphony, which might as well not have. 

Let me explain that last remark. The Scottish was originally one of a clutch of EMI recordings introducing Muti as a symphonic conductor -- he had, of course, previously recorded Verdi operas for the label. All three recordings - the others were Dvořák's New World and Tchaikovsky's First Symphony, Winter Dreams - reproduced with a peculiarly murky, grainy aural image - the reviewer for the late lamented High Fidelity described it as "furry". I had hoped that the CD would restore some of the missing sonic luster. 

At first, the digital processing appears to help. The slow introduction sounds smooth and bright enough; and while the exposition, beginning with strings alone, turns dull - sounding much as it did on the LP - each entrance of the wind instruments adds plenty of overtones. But as the movement winds on, the dullness comes to prevail no matter who's playing, and by the start of the Scherzo, we hear not only the strings but the clarinet as if from behind a scrim. If you crank up the volume, the result is harsher but no clearer. The intrusion of a low-range electronic buzz from 2:09 to 2:13 of the Scherzo suggests that technical problems may have dogged these sessions; at any rate, the sonic anomalies were clearly not exclusive to the U.S. Angel pressings - as we Americans had hoped, or feared - but a problem inherent in the original master-tapes. 

Still, we hear enough to realize that the performance is mostly nothing special. The first-movement introduction is straightforward enough, though the basses swell at the climax in an ungainly manner. Muti plays the second theme-group as if it were primarily about the rhythm rather than about the interplay of melodic fragments; it "dances," but it doesn't "sing." On the exposition repeat, the principal clarinetist does find the time to shape and color the theme, quite nicely at that -- and it's good to know they really did play the music twice. The Adagio slogs along, beat by ponderous beat: either Muti had no sense of its long line, or it was stitched together from too many short bits of tape. And patches of shoddy playing expose the conductor's "Defender of the Score" reputation as so much sham posturing. Rapid accompanying figures in the Scherzo and Finale are messy; the horns lag unconscionably behind the bass triplets at 4:42 of the Adagio -- this is not "good ensemble" as I've understood it. 

The companion symphonies are good but not great. The New Philharmonia players have no trouble keeping up with Muti's brisk, buoyant pace in the first movement of the Italian, but they've no time to make the passagework graceful, and in the development -- where the passagework pretty much takes over -- momentum inevitably flags, picking up again only when the theme returns. The closing Saltarello, however, is truly Presto, lithe and athletic. The Reformation offers the occasional freshly considered moment, as with the eerie, restrained reprise at 9:20 of the first movement, and the scherzo's easy, unforced swing. Otherwise, the predominantly moderate tempi and heavyhanded manner leave a workaday impression, exacerbated by dark, bass-heavy equalization. The reproduction in both works, while better than in the Scottish, is "canned" and unalluring. 

Like Muti's Scottish, the overtures served as EMI's calling-card for a young conductor - Moshe Atzmon in this case, who, like Muti, had already recorded for the company (Rachmaninov concerto accompaniments for Agustin Anievas, for those with long memories). Once past the obligatory Hebrides - no more or less than the players could have managed on their own: approximately executed, with a wooden, unshapely second theme - Atzmon shows a nice feeling for mood. Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage begins spaciously, with the chattering winds livening things up; Ruy Blas, one of my own favorites, goes with hearty exuberance. In its sturdy construction and appealing themes, Die Heimkehr aus der Fremde recalls the Schumann concert overtures, minus the Angst, while the little-played Athalie persuasively projects that curious mixture of stately squareness and operatic drama that marks the composer's oratorios. An audible splice just before the fast section of Ruy Blas, and a few random balances, suggest mild technical insecurities on Atzmon's part; otherwise the orchestra sounds good. 

Even at "twofer" pricing, I can't see getting the present set just for four overtures. The principal competition - DG's budget disc under Gabriel Chmura - is similarly unremarkable. As for the symphonies, collecting them is not so easy: conductors who give us a fine Italian (Szell/Sony, Colin Davis/Philips) don't always proceed to the Reformation, while some of those who excel at the latter (Gardiner/DG, von Dohnányi/Decca) are less distinctive in the A major. Munch did both well enough, with the Boston Symphony (RCA), but the fifty-year-old (!) stereo has noticeably dimmed. His febrile, exciting Scottish (RCA), however, recorded some years later, still comes up vividly; so does Peter Maag's sensitive account (Decca). For a coupling of the other two symphonies, I'd try for the early Maazel/Berlin (DG).

Stephen Francis Vasta 

see also Review by Patrick Waller

 




 


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