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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809–1847)
Mendelssohn in Birmingham - Volume 2
Overture to Ruy Blas, Op.95 [7:20]
Symphony No.1 in c minor, Op.11 (1827) [29:56]
Symphony No.3 in a minor, Op.56 Scottish (1842) [37:11]
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner
rec. Town Hall, Birmingham; 25 and 26 October 2013 (Symphonies); 16 February 2014 (Overture). DDD/DSD. hybrid SACD
pdf booklet available
CHANDOS CHSA5139 SACD [74:50]

The arrival of this SACD gives me a rare opportunity to compare it, as nearly as possible like for like, with the 24-bit download from Chandos’s own theclassicalshop.net which I reviewed in my Download News 2014/10. I was able to do the same with the BIS recording of Respighi’s Impressioni Brasiliane and La Boutique Fantasque (BIS-SACD-2050). On that occasion I found it impossible to prefer one to the other. I’ll leave it to the end of this review to say whether the same was true of the Chandos Mendelssohn.
 
Volume 1 of this series (CHAN/CHSA5132review and review) brought us the Hebrides Overture and Symphonies 4 and 5, so there’s only the neglected No.2 to come. After a slightly hesitant Hebrides, I enjoyed the two symphonies on the earlier release – Download News 2014/2 – and the second volume brings a repeat in that the opening Ruy Blas seemed slightly less than coherent at first hearing. Listening again to the SACD I was much less troubled by the failure quite to make the work cohere as a whole; certainly the orchestral playing, as throughout, is of a very high standard.
 
As before, too, the album pairs a well-known work, the Scottish Symphony, with a less well-known predecessor. There’s not a great deal to do with the First Symphony, even for Claudio Abbado on my benchmark set of the Mendelssohn symphonies (DG – see Download News 2014/2) other than to play it comparatively straight. That’s what Gardner does although he’s consistently a little faster in each movement than Abbado and, in the first two movements, than Andrew Litton (BIS). The advantage lies with Abbado here, though it’s not that Gardner ever makes the music perfunctory – rather that it comes over in Abbado's hands as sounding more like the work of a mature composer.
 
I surveyed some of the vast range of rival recordings of the Scottish Symphony in Download News 2014/2: chiefly Peter Maag’s classic Decca, which held the field until replaced, also on Decca, by Claudio Abbado. Abbado went on to record the work again for DG, a surprisingly nifty version. Otto Klemperer's and Herbert von Karajan’s coupling of Nos. 3 and 4 on DG Originals all have strong points.
 
I can’t point to an obvious ‘best buy’ among these but Gardner is up there with the best and Chandos have only one rival in 24-bit sound or SACD, from Andrew Litton (Nos. 3 and 5: BIS: Recording of the Monthreview). Two of my colleagues remarked on the sense of movement which Gardner obtained on the earlier release, especially in the Italian Symphony – review and review – so I was looking to find the same in the Scottish, which I happen to think the better of the two best-known of his symphonies. Sure enough, he’s a trifle faster than Litton in movements 1, 3 and 4, with almost exact agreement on the tempo for the second movement, very well handled by both. Fast shouldn’t mean hectic in the first movement and there’s no sense that Gardner is driving the horses too hard on this tour of the Scottish countryside. The introduction captures the brooding Holyrood theme which Mendelssohn composed many years before completing the symphony and the Scottish weather is typically uncertain throughout this performance.
 
For me the test in presenting this symphony concerns the transition in the final movement at the point where it seems that Mendelssohn has said all there is to say before surprising us by launching into new material with the coda. The transition should be apparent without seeming like a join – conductor and orchestra have to do some deft double de-clutching for this gear-change. If anything, the change is managed just a little comfortably here but that’s infinitely better than making it sound jerky. The ending is as stately as it is even from Maag and Abbado or, at a slightly slower pace overall, from Litton.
 
The recording is very good, with little to choose between the 24-bit BIS and Chandos recordings – both a little more expensive than mp3 or 16-bit but worth the extra. I didn’t listen to the 24-bit studio surround-sound download, which comes at a rather hefty price premium. I listened to the SACD in two-channel stereo only. I used the same amplifier and speakers in listening to both the download and the SACD, the only difference being that the former was fed from my desktop computer via a Dragonfly DAC and the latter played on a Cambridge 650BD blu-ray/SACD player. Allowing for the difficulty of playing back at exactly the same volume, I really could not tell the difference between the two. Both sound very well indeed: though primarily a blu-ray player, the 650BD is also a fine SACD spinner. I also played the disc on my other system with a dedicated Pioneer SACD player with equally fine results.
 
You should be able to find the SACD online for a little over £11; the 16-bit lossless download costs £9.99 and the 24-bit £13.99, with the 24-bit surround-sound at £17.99, so the price advantage, especially if you have surround equipment, lies with the physical disc. The situation is different for the BIS Respighi which I mentioned – again just over £11 on SACD, less expensive, at $10.33 from BIS’s eclassical.com website in mp3 and 16-bit, and $16.52 (around £10.50) in 24-bit. While a few labels still fly the flag for SACD, as I’m glad to see, it seems that it will be necessary to compare prices between the physical product and the download.
 
Slightly confusingly, Chandos have chosen the self-same Mendelssohn drawing for the cover as for Volume 1, though it’s slightly less cropped than before. It was a nice touch to use it for Volume 1 but a bit hackneyed to use it again and a potential cause of confusion. Otherwise the booklet – also available in pdf format with the download – is excellent.
 
This new recording represents a worthy successor to Volume 1. I now look forward to the final volume, containing Symphony No.2, the Lobgesang or Hymn of Praise.
 
Brian Wilson

Masterwork Index: Mendelssohn symphonies