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CD Review

Felix Mendelssohn

  • Symphony #1 in C minor, Op. 11
  • Symphony #5 in D Major "Reformation", Op. 107
Madrid Symphony Orchestra/Peter Maag
Arts Music 47508-2
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Great performances of these lesser Mendelssohn works are very hard to find outside of box sets. Certainly if you want to go all in, Abbado and Dohnányi fit the bill very nicely. But assuming you want to sample the composer's symphonies more selectively, this is a fine choice for Symphonies #1 and #5. Other choices include Paul Paray for the "Reformation" and a hard-to-find issue with Louis Lane and the Cleveland Orchestra for #1. Still, neither of those performances match either of the ones found here, with a surprisingly responsive Madrid Symphony Orchestra in tow.

Peter Maag's Mendelssohn on Decca still stands as some of the finest Mendelssohn conducting of the stereo era. Much like his Mozart, Maag leads naturally flowing and always effervescent readings, light and crisp while still aptly dramatic. The Madrid players bring a welcome – and absolutely essential – energy to these occasionally heavy-handed pieces. This is especially true in the case of the "Reformation", a piece that features a simultaneously moving and clumsy set of variations on "A Mighty Fortress is Our God". Thanks to Maag's steadfast refusal to plod, the music moves with an usual amount of grace without losing its nobility. True, conductors like Bernstein and Munch (on Deutsche Grammophon and RCA) may emphasize the grandeur and power of the chorale to greater effect, but few conductors give the entire work such cogency. Not quite world-class, the Madrid players have slightly sour moments here and there, not to mention a brass section that lacks lung power. Still, this is a great performance.

In the Symphony #1, Louis Lane's rather severe conception on Sony Classical yields wholly to Maag's lighter and more enjoyable take. Not that you can find Lane's reading, stuffed on a generous (but long out-of-print) Essential Classics twofer. While the Madrid players may lack the razor-sharp attacks of George Szell's golden-age Cleveland band, the overall feel for the music is far superior. Of course, this additional warmth the Spanish find could very well be due to Arts' vastly superior sonic reproduction; the Columbia sound is awfully harsh. The woodwinds are lovely for Maag, and the strings seem more secure in this early work. All five symphonies can be found on Arts Music 47620-2, which has gotten praise here and there, but those looking for a single disc with these two symphonies may have trouble finding better.

Copyright © 2015, Brian Wigman

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