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CD Review

Felix Mendelssohn

  • Symphony #3 "Scottish" *
  • Symphony #4 "Italian"
  • Overture "The Hebrides"
* Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Davis
Cleveland Orchestra/George Szell
Sony Essential Classics SBK46536
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The whole disc is excellent, but the highlight is Szell's razor-sharp and viscerally exciting Italian Symphony. It's not the warmest account ever – Szell's most graceful Mendelssohn is on Decca – but good grief is it thrilling! The unanimity of the playing, the assertiveness of ensemble, all of it is uniformly superb. Szell recorded little Mendelssohn, all things considered, though the Midsummer Night's Dream music was actually recorded twice, once in Cleveland and once with the Concertgebouw. His recordings of the aforementioned incidental music and the Violin Concerto are both sporadically also on Sony. That being said, this recording is probably the best of the lot, featuring his Clevelanders on fine a form as any. Yes, listeners looking for grace and charm from this music might be wary, perhaps even repulsed by the rhythmic attack on display. But there's no performance in my collection quite like it.

The Overture shares many similar virtues, and would have ideally been coupled with the Sony version of the incidental music, making this an all-Szell, all-Cleveland program at rock-bottom price. Instead, we have Andrew Davis in a 1980's take on the Scottish Symphony. It's not bad at all. It doesn't match, say, Peter Maag on Decca. Still, early in his career Andrew Davis had a genuinely catholic taste in music and the good fortune to work with the world's greatest ensembles. The Bavarian Radio players aren't known for Mendelssohn, but it doesn't much matter in this warm and loving rendition. Certainly this is far more relaxed than Szell's Italian, and if less incisive, is certainly more willing to highlight the composer's lyricism. It is a touch too heavy in places, hence the recommendation of Maag, who strikes an ideal balance between Szell and Davis in approach. The playing here is very beautiful though, and I doubt that listeners will have any trouble admiring the disc as a whole for the excellence on display. One of the finer entries in ArkivMusic's reissue program, and one not to be missed.

Copyright © 2014, Brian Wigman