Beethoven Symphony No. 5
This is a fine pairing of two outstanding symphonies. The Mendelssohn No. 4 is probably a bit underrated in general and somewhat neglected - a true shame. The most famous of all symphonies, Beethoven's No. 5 deserves all the accolades it has collected over the years. It merits the term "great", and in many music lovers' opinion, "greatest" is the correct description.
Some background information is called for regarding this fine new/old recording! It is one of the first eight I received from Telarc, the distributor for the Netherlands-based recording company, PentaTone. Briefly the story begins around thirty years ago. Phillips Classics recordings started a series of quadraphonic (four channel) recordings with the goal of releasing them as four channel vinyl (LP) recordings. For a variety of reasons, these early commercial attempts to introduce multi-channel or surround sound failed. It was evident that Phillips recording engineers had captured excellent four-channel sound recordings on the original master tapes. These tapes have been sitting in their boxes for approximately thirty years - until now.
To ensure the high quality of the original tapes, no effort was made to add to or alter the original. Therefore, even though the SACD standard allows for five channels plus a sixth (subwoofer) channel, these early recordings in the RQR series are in their original four channel version. RQR as you may have figured out, stands for Remastered Quadro Recordings. I will try to review all of them in the next few months. They are in the hybrid multichannel SACD format and playable on all SACD and CD players and evidently all DVD (video) players. Though just fine as a regular stereo CD maximum concert hall warmth and surrounding ambience will be obtained when played back on a four, five or six channel audio surround sound system.
Enough background. Let us proceed to what is really important - the music. This most famous of all symphonies is almost instantly recognizable with an unexpectedly powerful four note motif. It is repeated immediately, but not exactly the same. It is heard throughout the movement in one form or another. Perhaps this easy recognition has something to do with its fame. Some music lovers argue that Beethoven's ninth (choral) symphony is equally great. It had been reported that Beethoven claimed that opening motif was "fate knocking at the door". Many musicologists and most music lovers agree. The finale (at the end of the fourth movement begins with a recalling of all motifs, various themes including fanfare and march-like ones, leading into a concluding code and presto of unmatched power and brilliance that is an integral part of his symphony's true greatness.
As with many compositions, various conductors interpret the written score in different subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways. Should the tremendous feeling of power in many sections of the symphony be emphasized a bit or toned-down a bit I could ask. Then, you as a listener and purchaser of a recording have a choice to make. Hopefully I can assist you. Colin Davis is pretty much middle-of-the-road. He definitely does not emphasize the more brilliant or powerful passages. The more lyrical passages as in the second movement are given their full beauty. U.K. writers have often given Carlos Kleiber's version of Beethoven's
Colin Davis gives a similar performance with just a touch less drive in the first movement and not as much contrast (less pace and brilliance) in the final movement. This new PentaTone SACD/DC offers better sound quality than Kleiber's LP which has some overemphasis in the treble range, very noticeably so in the louder passages. Listening to Solti's well-known exciting and powerful interpretation was certainly a change, a very exuberant change. I had not listened to it recently (London 6930 or complete CD set and probably individual CD). This exciting performance is enhanced (LP) by extremely impressive sound with a rich bloom and fullness in the bass end and a bit of added sparkle in the treble range. Timing of the first movement had Solti fifteen second slower than Colin Davis and almost a full minute slower than Kleiber! How can that be? Seems as though Kleiber's famous (in the U.K.) version is skipping the repeat of the exposition in the first movement and Davis, as well as Solti, are giving us the entire movement as written. Here we have a fine interpretation by Colin Davis with excellent orchestral playing and equally fine recording. An impressive start for these "new PentaTone recordings. A high recommendation for a great symphony plus a welcome bonus!
The bonus, as you probably have guessed, is Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 4, "The Italian". It may not be a great symphony as with one or more of Beethoven's, but it is quite outstanding. To call it delightful is not to do full justice. It is much more than that. Many regard it as his masterpiece. If you are not familiar with Mendelssohn's work, also try his violin concerto. In my not so humble opinion it is one of the three most beautiful ever composed (Tchaikovsky and Bruch are the other two). He was from a wealthy family and supposedly never had money worries. Many have wondered in print that if he had been poor would he have become a better composer? It is a very interesting question. Poverty seemed to be a driving force behind many of the greatest in the field of the arts whether they be composers, painters or writers - why? So while he lived a happy life and particularly while he was in Italy writing his "jolliest piece", the Italian Symphony, he was truly never completely satisfied with his outstanding composition.
It was first performed in 1933 with him conducting. About a year later he revised the score. On and off in the next dozen years he kept rewriting sections and revising and as an unsatisfied result he never allowed it to be published and as far as he was concerned, it was never really finished! It is finished. Enjoy it. Sir Colin Davis here performs it as well as I remember ever hearing performed, live or recorded. I can easily imagine that someone such as Beecham, Monteux or even Dorati might have been able to do even better in the subtly beautiful lyrical and melodic sections, but if they've not done it yet, it is not going to happen.
There is a different sound overall with the Italian Symphony. It may simply be that the recording venue is Boston Symphony Hall and herein beautifully captured. Then again it could be different microphones and/or placed differently. In any event the Boston Symphony is beautifully and warmly presented here with a natural bloom and ambiance. The clarity clearly reveals the beautiful playing of both the horns and winds, nothing forced just clearly and cleanly revealed. Winds are not usually so clearly revealed. Highest recommendation as an outstanding trio - a trio of conducting interpretation, orchestral playing and audio sound quality all coming together with a beautiful musical selection - Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony! The Beethoven on this disc was very good to excellent in all respects. The Mendelssohn is even better - in all respects.