Music and Vision homepage

CD Spotlight

Consistently Solid

Kurt Masur and others
conduct Mendelssohn -
reviewed by

'... too often short on graciousness, charm or buoyancy.'

Mendelssohn Edition 1. © 2008 Warner Classics and Jazz

Masur's performances are consistently solid, dependable and driven but too often short on graciousness, charm or buoyancy.

For these essential qualities you might advantageously turn to Abbado and the London Symphony Orchestra with their DGG (1985) boxed set of the five symphonies and seven extras (including Octet -- Scherzo, Op 20; Midsummer Night's Dream Overture, Op 21; Ruy Blas Overture, Op 95; Overture for wind instruments, Harmoniemusik, Op 24 and Overture for orchestra, Trumpet, Op 101 ).

The first volume of this Mendelssohn edition includes four CDs; competitive, though hardly outstanding performances. It includes the five symphonies, the Violin Concerto in E minor, the two piano concertos (G minor and D minor), the Capriccio Brilliant, Op 22, and three overtures. The box cover has Mendelssohn's autograph with his impressively detailed watercolor view of Florence (1830).

From 1835 to 1847 Mendelssohn was kapellemeister of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (LGO) and here the concertos, Capriccio brilliant, and Symphonies Nos 1, 2 and 5 are directed by Kurt Masur who inherited the post between 1970 and 1996.

For unaccountable reasons the Scotch (No 3) and Italian (No 4) symphonies are nicely played yet somewhat routine in a Chamber Orchestra of Europe recording with Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

In the Masur/Gewandhaus symphonies for Eurodisc, alternative female soloists appear in the Lobgesang Symphony No 2 -- they are Italian soprano Celestina Casapietra (wife of conductor Herbert Kegel, 1966-1983) and German soprano, Adele Stolte.

All the other symphonies as well as the concertos are perfomed by Kurt Masur and Mendelssohn's own LGO (1835-1847) so it's a curious decision to scoop up the two most popular plus his Overture The Fair Melusine with Harnoncourt.

Listen -- Mendelssohn: Chorale (Reformation Symphony)
(CD1 track 8, 6:42-7:32) © 2008 Warner Classics and Jazz

Too often Masur's performances of these works seem like shirt-sleeve run throughs; the impression was confirmed when hearing the Reformation Symphony finale (Allegro maestoso) and, hard on its heels, hugely characterful performances of Calm Sea ... and Hebrides overtures with the Berlin Phil and Josef Keilberth (1908-1968).

Keilberth suffered from a jaundiced reception at the hands of the British musical press though he silenced many critics when DGG released a live 1963 recording of Strauss' 'Arabella' with the Bavarian State Opera Orchestra in the company of soloists Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Lisa della Casa and Anneliese Rothenberger

Incidentally neither the ebullient Italian Symphony nor the superbly architectural Reformation (Mendelssohn refused to have the latter published) were made available within the composers' lifetime. Number 4 was written in 1883 and published in 1851; Number 5 was written in 1832 and published in 1868.

As Gewanhausorchester music director, Kurt Masur was preceded by Václav Neumann and followed by Herbert Blomstedt; followed in turn (2005) by the 19th Gewandhaus Kapellmeister, Riccardo Chailly. Others LGO conductors have included Carl Reinecke, Arthur Nikisch, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Bruno Walter and Franz Konwitschny.

In Japan a generous of these 'Edition 1' items are lumped together with a rag-bag of other stuff on two discs garishly titled 'The Mendelssohn Experience -- 27 Tracks from the world's greatest musical prodigy.'

Alas, unlike Perahia with Marriner and the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields (1974) in the con fuoco and e vivace (1st Concerto) Katsaris ends up burning rubber, somehow managing to draw attention to the tearing hurry he insists on. It's as though bacon is afire on the kitchen hob and Kurt and Cyprien (1988) have to finish movements and turn down the flame ASAP.

As one might expect the Violin Concerto (E minor) with Maxim Vengerov as soloist is powerful, technically flawless -- yet overall somewhat lacklustre.

Listen -- Mendelssohn: Allegro molto appassionato (Violin Concerto)
(CD4 track 1, 0:00-1:12) © 2008 Warner Classics and Jazz

The work is recorded by legions of soloists and a good number perform it with far more bounce and enchantment; among them Cho Liang-Lin with the Philharmonia and Michael Tilson-Thomas on Sony Classics, 1990 (?), Alfredo Campoli (with the LPO and Eduard van Beinum in 1948 on Dutton), Szigeti (with Beecham and the LPO in 1933, now available on EMI Classics).

Each one of the above is truly great. Yet if I were compelled to select just one version I'd choose Kyung Wha-Chung with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and Charles Dutoit on Decca Legends, 1981. Beside the Mendelssohn, Chung includes Bruch's Concerto No 1 in G minor and his Scottish Fantasy, Op 46.

However, if you're after all the concertos on a single, modestly-priced disc, you'll hardly improve on Eugene Ormandy with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra and Philadelphia Orchestra on CBS in 1959. This single remastered release has performances of undeniable, patrician stature with Rudolf Serkin, piano and Isaac Stern, violin, aged 56 and 39 respectively.

As for the symphonies, Naxos has a first rate set; a credit to conductor Seifried Reinhard, Ireland's National Symphony Orchestra, the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir, sopranos Majella Cullagh and Mary Nelson, and tenor Adrian Thompson. These discs are numbered 8.553200 (Symphonies 3 and 4), 8.550957 (Symphonies 1 and 5) and 8.553522 (Symphony 2, 'Lobgesang').

A valuable advantage in purchasing all five symphonies is the acquisition of Mendelssohn's lamentably neglected Symphony No 2 in B flat major, Op 52, Lobgesang (or Hymn of Praise), written in 1840 to celebrate the four hundredth anniversary of Johannes Gutenberg's invention of the mechanical printing press.

The composer described this work as 'A Symphony-Cantata on Words of the Holy Bible, for Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra'. It consists of three purely orchestral movements followed by nine movements for chorus and/or soloists and orchestra.

Listen -- Mendelssohn: Choral: Nun danket alle Gott (Lobgesang)
(CD2 track 12, 2:26-3:18) © 2008 Warner Classics and Jazz

Many will be familiar with the Chorale twelfth movement -- Nun danket alle Gott (Cantata 79); In 1725 Bach set it for organ and brass quintet. The words are by Martin Rinkart (circa 1636) and the tune supposedly first appeared in Praxis Pietatis Melica by Johann Crüger (Berlin, Germany, 1647). Translator Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878) gave us the words: 'Now Thank We All Our God' -- even now a favourite of the English Hymnal.

Try this boxed collection by all means. While you do I'll stick with the more inspired Abbado (DGG) and Reinhard (Naxos).

Copyright © 26 April 2009 Howard Smith,
Masterton, New Zealand






 << Music & Vision home      Recent CD reviews       Ethos Percussion Group >>