Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Complete Symphonies
CD 1
Symphony No. 1 in C minor Op. 11 [27:28];
Die Erste Walpurgisnacht Op. 60 [33:34];
CD 2
Lobesgesang (Symphony No. 2) Op. 52 [66:43];
CD 3
Symphony No. 3 in A minor Op. 56 Scottish [34:41];
Symphony No. 4 in A major Op. 90 Italian [25:34];
CD 4
Symphony No. 5 in D minor Op. 107 Reformation [39:17];
Overture The Hebrides Op. 26 [10:06];
Overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage Op. 27 [12:28];
Athalie Op. 74: Overture [8:53]; War March of the Priests [5:30]
Margarita Lilowa (soprano); Horst Laubenthal (tenor); Tom Krause (baritone); Alfred Sramek (bass); Sonia Ghazarian (soprano); Edita Gruberova (soprano); Werner Krenn (tenor); Josef Böch (organ)
Wiener Singverein; Wiener Staatsopernchor;
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Christoph von Dohnányi
rec. Sofiensaal, Vienna, 1976-1979
text and translations available on website
DECCA 478 2366 [4 CDs: 61:11 + 66:43 + 62:28 + 66:33]
Although apart from Nos. 3 and 4 Mendelssohn’s Symphonies turn up surprisingly rarely in concert programmes there are now many complete recordings from which the collector can choose. For anyone with a special interest in the composer the chance to compare the approaches of, say, Karajan, Abbado, Sawallisch and Masur may well be irresistible, and when versions by other distinguished conductors who have recorded only individual Symphonies, including Toscanini, Norrington and Gardiner, are added the choices seem endless. All of those versions I have mentioned have real merits of their own whilst demonstrating the validity of quite different approaches to the music. The present set makes a distinguished return to the catalogue and addition to this number. The performances may now be over forty years old but unless the quality of the recording is your main interest their age would be no reason to ignore the set. The recording is indeed clear and well focused, and due I suspect to a combination of the arts of the conductor and the recording engineers much important and delightful detail is audible which often gets lost, especially in the tuttis.
Dohnányi’s approach is essentially classical, dramatic and at all times alert. As these are all prime qualities for successful performance of this composer’s works the results are impressive and enjoyable. The Scottish, for example, has real momentum and is never allowed to sit back on itself, even in the slow movement or in the final Allegro maestoso assai. This is even more marked in the Lobesgesang where the conductor seems consciously to be attempting to avoid any hint of the sanctimonious. I enjoyed this, although others may prefer a more romantic approach.
It is possible to squeeze all five Symphonies onto three discs, but here they are spread out over four. This does result in playing times that are adequate rather than generous but it also means that there is room for the Overtures, War March and, best of all, Die Erste Walpurgisnacht. Despite listening to several versions I remain unconvinced that this is one of the composer’s masterworks, but it does show his imagination in its depiction of the Druids, determined to carry on with the old religion despite the opposition of the Christians. It is given a suitably dramatic performance here, spoilt only by the curious feebleness of the soprano chorus when singing high As. Of the overtures, that to Athalie is particularly welcome - its scoring and dramatic flow make it one of my favourite Mendelssohn overtures.
The only serious criticism I have of the set is Dohnányi’s dislike of exposition repeats. I regret this in the Scottish but object strongly to it in the Italian where it means the loss of over twenty bars of music as well spoiling the proportions of the movement. However all too many conductors do this, and the rest of the performance is so good that it is best to overlook it.
There is a brief but useful note by Colin Anderson and the necessary texts and translations are available on the Decca website. All in all this set has much to recommend itself to both those with other versions already who want it as a comparison, and to those without who can be assured of clean, dramatic and well-considered performances and recordings.
John Sheppard 

Clean, dramatic and well-considered performances and recordings.