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CD Review

Felix Mendelssohn

  • Symphony #1 in C minor, Op. 11 (1824)
  • Symphony #2 in B Flat Major "Lobesang", Op. 52 (1840) *
  • Symphony #3 in A minor "Scottish", Op. 56 (1842)
  • Symphony #4 in A Major "Italian", Op. 90 (1833)
  • Symphony #5 in D Major "Reformation", Op. 107 (1830)
  • Die erste Walpurgisnacht, Op. 60 **
  • Merestille und gluckliche Fahrt, Op. 27
  • Die Hebriden, Op. 26
  • Athalie, Op. 74 (Overture & War March of the Priests)
* Sona Ghazarian, soprano * Edita Gruberova, soprano
* Werner Krenn, tenor
* Josef Böch, organ
** Margarita Lilowa, contralto
** Horst Laubenthal, tenor
** Tom Krause, baritone
** Alfred Sramek, bass
* Wiener Staatsopernchor
** Wiener Singverein
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Christoph von Dohnányi
Decca Collectors Edition 4782366 4CDs
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Universal has the market on complete sets of Mendelssohn Symphonies. Back in the day, there were three. Ashkenazy's Berlin Radio set has admirers, though it's hard to find even at used record stores. I have never seen it personally. Mr. Gerald Fenech did though, and in his review of Decca 470946-2, cited this present Vienna cycle as the finest available. Until this slim box, it was spread across two double sets (Fenech reviewed the "Trio" set for the Ashkenazy). The third option then was Claudio Abbado's (DG 4714672), which appeared in the previous set of "Collectors Edition" boxes at budget price. Ashkenazy's three disc set held only the symphonies, Abbado's seven overtures, while this box has three overtures, a cantata, and a march.

Which set is "best", then? I have long treasured Abbado's as the finest overall achievement in this music, given the outstanding contributions of the London Symphony Orchestra. Mr. Fenech recommended this one, and it's even more enticing at the low price and similar layout to the Abbado. That leaves Ashkenazy out in the cold, without any couplings, or any champions in Universal's marketing department. Between the remaining two, there is little reason to favor one over the other. Should you want your couplings to be exclusively overtures, I suggest the Abbado set. Should you prefer choral music, Dohnányi is worth considering, especially as the cantata is one of the conductors' specialties. While the Vienna Philharmonic plays with their customary polish and finesse, I can't deny that Claudio Abbado was one of the great Mendelssohn conductors of his age, and both sets feature quality sound production.

One factor may tip the scales in favor of Abbado, and that is the issue of repeats. Before I became a writer, I never much bothered with the question of repeats, and wondered what all the fuss was about. Charles Munch's Beethoven recordings proved just how odd symphonic music can sound without them, and Dohnányi's Mendelssohn is another such case. As several English critics have pointed out, this is no big deal in some of the early symphonies but sounds noticeably jarring in the "Italian". Of course, none of this may matter to you at all, in which case this set is highly recommended. Actually, you can get both this set and the Abbado for the price of a high-end Beethoven cycle. Should you love the composer, I readily believe in the value of having both.

Copyright © 2015, Brian Wigman

Trumpet