on 31 December 2011
A potential purchaser of this set is more likely to be interested in the symphonies than the other two works, so I have concentrated on those for this review. All the symphonies receive very fine performances under the baton of Vladimir Ashkenazy.
No.1 is possibly the least well-known, but is a pleasant half-hour's listening. No.2 "Hymn of Praise" has three orchestral movements before the choral sections begin. There is some fine singing here from the two sopranos, Juliane Banse and Sibylla Rubens, and the tenor, Vinson Cole, supported well by Rundfunkchor Berlin. The best-known of the set, No.3 "Scottish" and No.4 "Italian" are both performed with vigour in the vivace sections, contrasting well in the slower movements.
My favourite of the whole set, No.5 "Reformation", was actually written after No.1. The first movement's section "Allegro con fuoco" in D minor is given a thrustful performance and in this movement the Dresden Amen (later used by Wagner in Parsifal) is used to great effect. The second movement~a Minuet~is in B flat and provides 5 minutes of joyous, lightly-sprung music. In the final movement, the Chorale "Ein' feste Burg", is used in different guises. If you do not know this symphony, it is very well worth getting to know.
There are 9 of the 12 numbers Mendelssohn wrote as the Incidental music to "A Midsummer Night's Dream" on this recording. The choral movements, not often heard, are of particular interest. All are given satisfying performances.
The Octet is in its String Orchestra arrangement, but to my mind it doesn't come over with the same effect, apart from the lovely Scherzo.
Texts of all the choral movements are provided in the notes. If you are wanting a complete set of the symphonies, then I have no hesitation in recommending this set to you.
This small box set of four CDs comprises all of Mendelssohn's symphonies together with his `Octet for Strings' and his music for `A Midsummer Night's Dream'. All the music was recorded between 1992 and 1996. (Those new to Mendelssohn should be aware that his five symphonies are not numbered in chronological order.)
Vladimir Ashkenazy conducts the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. `Symphony No.1' (written when the composer was fifteen) occupies a similar soundworld to his overture to `A Midsummer Night's Dream' (written at the age of seventeen). The minuet, especially its quiet and stately trio, is here a delight.
I never thought much of Mendelssohn's second symphony, his `Hymn of Praise' (1840), but Ashkenazy here taught me how wrong I was. It is a brilliant performance, due I think to emphasising contrasting dynamics: forceful and vigorous when required; lyrical and gentle; noble and majestic. In other words, Ashkenazy instils drama into what could otherwise have been a bland apology of a performance.
Symphonies three (`Italian', 1833) and four ('Scottish', 1842) are good, but the disc on which they sit had different producers and sound engineers from the rest. Alas, for both symphonies the sound is slightly distorted in places on my system. Finally, in `Symphony No.5' (`Reformation', 1830), Ashkenazy makes effective use of the Dresden Amen and the Lutheran Chorale.
Ashkenazy chooses to use a full string orchestra for the performance of the `Octet'. Whilst condoned by the composer, this way of playing the piece means that the clarity of the pure chamber version is lost. That said, it is here finely played - and I even thought places in the first movement were reminiscent of Schoenberg's `Verklarte Nacht'! Meanwhile the music to `A Midsummer Night's Dream' is impressively rendered by the orchestra.
Overall, then, this collection is a good introduction to the music of Mendelssohn. But for such a populist collection to be complete, a further disc should be included of his violin concerto and a selection of his overtures.