Here we get the most sympathetic view of Muti as a conductor of standard German repertoire. EMI stood by him for two decades as their bid for the next great all-around maestro, and if you search the back catalog, you'll find all the Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, and Schumann that shows how iffy their faith turned out to be. None of it made much impact or had much lasting value, because this fiery, dynamic conductor of Verdi operas is conventional in much orchestral repertoire. However, these three Mendelssohn symphonies find him at his best.
Muti remains a bit stiff in its approach, and in the opening movement of the 'Scottish' Sym. he applies his usual disciplined beat with hardly any romantic yielding of the line. But as with Toscanini, this approach works well with Mendelsoohn's transparent scoring and fleet tempos. Some listeners may miss the joviality and expansiveness of Bernstein's NY Phil. recording of the "Scottish", my favorite, or Karajan's grand sweep. But Muti gives excellent value, musical and monetary. The mid-Seventies sonics are very good. The New Philharmonia is placed a bit distantly with hall echo around it, but there's still plenty of detail.
The catalog is full of notable "Italian" Sym. recordings, and due to its enduring popularity, I'd venture that the piece plays itself, an effect heightened because this isn't deep music - it's joyous, ebullient, and mostly fast-moving. Muti, who can be hard-driving in the opera pit, lets the sun in here. Perhaps he wants us to think of this music as relaxed and open-hearted - in other words, really Italian. For whatever reason, the reading is definitely set in a land of smiles. There's noting unusual in the phrasing or tempos; the orchestra seems to be enjoying itself, and all around I'd place Muti up against any modern reading shy of Bernstein's more robust, earthy account, which is more unbuttoned. The tarantella finale is taken at a breathless speed but is very light on its feet.
The "Reformation" Sym. remains the stepchild of Mendelssohn's last three symphonies, for various reasons. It isn't as inspired musically as the two masterpieces that precede it, and its religious associations no longer work in its favor with audiences (it's been a long time since people couldn't wait to celebrate Martin Luther). Few conductors have been able to revive the spirit of the score, although Bernstein and Karajan mount grand attempts. I think the best reading is from Charles Munch, because his fairly raw, slapdash approach to German music works to leaven the music's solemnity. Can Muti do the same? Not quite - his is a respectful reading that skirts over seriousness, but it doesn't quicken your pulse as Munch does. The straightness of his approach makes me suspect that he didn't know the score well but was persuaded to record it for the sake of completeness. The Scherzo is too cautious, but the Andante that follows has a lovely simplicity. The finale, based on Luther's chorale, "Ein feste Burg," inspires Muti to a lightness of touch that is very welcome.
If you are willing to buy three budget discs, you can turn to a different EMI packaging that includes all of Mendelssohn's major overtures. Here, rather strangely, we get only "Calm Sea and Propssperous Voyage," followed for no good reason by Liszt's 'Les Preludes' and Franck's 'Chasseur maudit." The god of repackaging is a fickle god. The Mendelssohn overture gets a fresh, breezy reading. The Liszt attempts to be dignified and winds up simply being unmemorable. The sonorous Franck reading can't hold a candle to Munch's wild inreadgride.
EMI is releasing twelve multi-disc sets to celebrate Muti's seventieth birthday. Nearly all the material has been floating around bargain bins for years, but the repackaging gives us a chance to listen with fresh ears. In the case of this Mendelssohn twofer, there are quite a few unexpected rewards.