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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Complete Symphonies
CD 1 [68:16]
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 11 (1827) [29:03]
Symphony No. 3 A minor, Op. 56 “Scottish” (1842) [38:51]
CD 2 [65:52]
Symphony No. 2 in B flat, Op. 52 “Lobgesang” (1840) [65:52]
New Philharmonia Chorus, Helen Donath (soprano), Rotraud Hansmann (soprano), Waldemar Kmentt (tenor)
CD 3 [58:58]
Symphony No. 4 in A, Op. 90 “Italian” (1832) [29:04]
Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 107 “Reformation” [29:54]
New Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus,Wolfgang Sawallisch
rec. London, 1967
Licensed from Decca
CD 4–7: Complete String Symphonies
CD 4 [70:26]
No. 1 in C major [11:14]
No. 6 in E flat [12:20]
No. 7 in D minor [23:40]
No. 12 in G minor [21:16]
CD 5 [60:12]
No. 2 in D [12:38]
No. 3 in E minor [8:17]
No. 9 in C [28:38]
No. 10 in B minor [10:04]
CD 6 [58:41]
No. 4 in C minor [8:50]
No. 5 in B flat [11:10]
No. 13 in C minor [7:22]
No. 8 in D (Version with Winds) [29:12]
CD 7 [69:35]
No. 8 in D (Version for Strings) [30:14]
No. 11 in F [37:50]
Amsterdam Sinfonietta/Lev Markiz
rec. 1994-1996, Concertgebouw Haarlem, The Netherlands
Licensed from BIS
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 93777 [07:32:00]

Experience Classicsonline

As part of their contribution to the Mendelssohn Bicentenary commemorations Brilliant have done again what they do so well: taken some recordings no longer in use on their original labels and repackaged them as complete repertoire at a most attractive price. This set contains all Mendelssohn’s numbered symphonies together with his early String Symphonies. Not only is it great value but it festures good performances in faithful sound and would be highly recommendable at any price.

Sawallisch’s 1967 Decca set is chosen for the “big” symphonies. Long out of the catalogue, it is good to see it back again. Sawallisch’s approach is most definitely big-boned and Romantic: there is little period inflection here. The opening movement of No. 1 has a great sense of energy and drive. While it’s obviously a youthful work – anger rather than high tragedy – Sawallish pays the music the great compliment of taking it seriously, and there are still plenty of surprises, such as the well judged pause before the coda. There is a lovely glow to the string playing at the start of the second movement, while the woodwind choir that alternates with it shows a nice sense of interplay, especially in the undulating clarinet figure. The minuet reminds you of Schubert’s 5th Symphony, while the opening of the last movement is just like the opening of the Mozart 40 finale. For the work of an 18-year old, however, it’s pretty impressive. No. 2 has a heavy, portentous opening that then gives way to a much fleeter second subject, and the lilting allegretto feels like half way between a minuet and a scherzo. The singing is very good indeed, especially from the (always excellent) New Philharmonia Chorus. Their explosion on Die Nacht ist vergangen is really arresting, punctuated by a leaping violin figure. The soloists are very distinguished too: Kmennt brings real drama to the recitatives, while the sopranos blend well in their duet.

The Scottish brings full-bodied, committed playing. The folk-inflected main subject is very successful, and quite foot-tapping, and the scherzo chatters away attractively. The finale builds in strength towards the majestic – some might say bombastic – hymn theme at the end which is given with strength. The opening of the Italian is lively, but not as breakneck as we’ve come to expect from some “period” performances. The strings play with incisive attack throughout the first movement, though Sawallisch brings a surprisingly restrained conclusion. The Andante’s funeral procession is well paced, and there is a lovely radiance to the contrasting major episode. The Menuet is graceful, while the Saltarello is racy and exciting. The slow introduction to the Reformation feels a little stodgy, though the large scale of the orchestra adds weight to the drama that follows. The irreverent perkiness of the scherzo is a jarring contrast, while the Andante again showcases the glowing tone of the New Philharmonia strings. There is a noticeable build in the finale, as the chorale theme grows in strength, and the closing bars are powerful, satisfying and surprisingly fleet!

It will be a long time before anyone challenges the supremacy of Claudio Abbado’s Mendelssohn set with the LSO on DG: more than twenty years later this is still the one to beat. However, you would need high standards indeed not to be very satisfied with this Sawallisch set. The playing and singing is excellent, the pacing is well judged throughout, and the sound has the bloom of the vintage Decca teams of the 1960s. It’s a pity there is no information about the recording engineers involved.

If Sawallisch is good, however, the accompanying set of String Symphonies must surely leap straight to the top of any recommendable list for this music. The Amsterdam Sinfonietta play this music with beauty and extraordinary elegance, revealing each work as a mini masterpiece. For a start the sound is noticeably clearer on these recordings: they are closer with a lot less hiss, essential for more intimate works like these. The playing is lithe, zestful and full of fun. Markiz has a real feel for the diversity of these works: Mozartian bustle for No. 1 in C, tense and dramatic for No. 7 in D minor. Again and again I was moved to marvel at the invention of these works: it’s remarkable to think that Mendelssohn himself suppressed them (the manuscripts didn’t surface until the 1950s) and didn’t count any of them as among his official symphonies. It’s true: intentionally or otherwise, some of them are a little derivative. The first movement of No. 4 in C minor sounds like a Bach Sarabande, while Nos. 6 and 2, among others, sound a lot like early Mozart. 9 feels like Schubert, but that’s paying it a huge compliment. There are still some strikingly original works too, though: Nos. 8 and 11 are fully fledged symphonies, and it is good to have both the string and full orchestral arrangements of No. 8, a masterpiece that would not have been out of place among the mature works of any composer. The playing is warm and sympathetic throughout, highly recommendable in every way.

This, then, is a great set to celebrate the Mendelssohn anniversary. It will satisfy both newcomers and seasoned Mendelssohnians, and at this price it’s unmissable. Invest with confidence.


Simon Thompson




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