March 08, 2012


Mendelssohn: Symphonies Nos. 1-5; String Symphonies (complete). New Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch (Symphonies); Amsterdam Sinfonietta conducted by Lev Markiz (String Symphonies). Brilliant Classics. $34.99 (7 CDs).

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5; “Pique Dame” Overture. Gürzenich-Orchester Köln conducted by Dmitrij Kitajenko. Oehms. $19.99 (SACD).

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6. Gürzenich-Orchester Köln conducted by Dmitrij Kitajenko. Oehms. $19.99 (SACD).

     Brilliant Classics, which specializes in reasonably priced re-releases of classic performances, has done a real service to lovers of Mendelssohn by pairing the 1967 symphony performances led by Wolfgang Sawallisch (originally from Decca) with the 1994-96 readings of the early String Symphonies conducted by Lev Markiz (originally on the Swedish label BIS). These are very fine renditions of all the works, without exception, and if the analog sound in the five symphonies is not quite up to the latest CD standards, it is warm and well-proportioned and, in truth, better than much CD sound, especially from the medium’s early years. Sawallisch takes a middle-of-the-road approach to this music, balancing the symphonies judiciously, nicely bringing out the melodic lines and the lovely woodwind touches with which the works are filled, and offering solid rhythms and fine pacing. In the Symphony No. 2, “Lobgesang,” really a symphony-cantata, he has very fine solo performers in sopranos Helen Donath and Rotraud Hansmann and tenor Waldemar Kmentt, plus the top-notch New Philharmonia Chorus; and even though the first three movements are far less important in this work than in its model, Beethoven’s Ninth, Sawallisch treats them as significant rather than as mere prologue to the much longer choral movement, giving the symphony as a whole a better proportion than it often has. His involving and respectful treatment of No. 1 is a pleasure, too, showing this to be a work of greater maturity than it is sometimes deemed to be. And the readings of the three most-often-played symphonies, if they break no new interpretative ground, are well played, well balanced and convincing.

     One reason Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 1 can justifiably be considered a somewhat mature work even though it was first performed in the composer’s 18th year (1827) is that it was originally given the number 13, following the set of String Symphonies that Mendelssohn began writing when he was 11. Confusingly, there are actually 13 String Symphonies if you count among them a single C minor movement usually called No. 13; and there are 14 of these early works if you figure in the two versions of No. 8 (one with winds, one for strings only). No matter: early the pieces certainly are, and the very earliest clearly show Mendelssohn trying with mixed success to master compositional techniques. The numbering of the string symphonies is not considered strictly correct chronologically, but it is approximately right, and the earlier works – despite lovely melodic flow – are certainly less satisfyingly assembled than the later ones. Markiz presents all 14 of these pieces in performances that are bright, enthusiastic and very well played by the Amsterdam Sinfonietta. Listeners unfamiliar with this music will be surprised to discover that several of the String Symphonies are equal in length to several of the five mature ones, or even more substantial: No. 7 runs 25 minutes, No. 8 (in either version) lasts 31, No. 9 runs 30, and No. 11 lasts nearly 40 – longer than any of the five full-orchestra symphonies except the “Lobgesang.” Even listeners who have heard these works before will find a great deal to enjoy in the poised and elegant readings here. Brilliant Classics does cut corners on packaging and can sometimes be sloppy or simply odd in written material: here, Kmentt’s first name is misspelled “Waldermar”; no text for the “Lobgesang” is provided; and the mature symphonies are discussed in separate and somewhat repetitious notes in the arrangement 1 and 4, then 2, then 3 and 5 – while the CDs present 1 and 3, then 2, then 4 and 5. For music as lovely and well-performed as this, though, these are mere quibbles.

     Listeners may find more than this to quibble about in the brand-new and sonically excellent Tchaikovsky cycle led by Dmitrij Kitajenko, currently being released by Oehms. The first SACD was the “Manfred,” which sounded wonderful and which convincingly blended and contrasted slow sections that were taken very slowly with fast ones taken at a strongly contrasting speedy pace. Kitajenko applies the same basic interpretative technique to Nos. 5 and 6, more successfully in the former than in the latter. No. 5 begins very slowly indeed – at a funereal Adagio tempo rather than the Andante marked in the score – but once the Allegro con anima begins, Kitajenko picks things up effectively, and for the rest of the symphony uses the wonderful sound of the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln to great advantage in a performance filled with vigor and warmth, abetted by really outstanding SACD sound. The Andante cantabile is especially lovely. The CD is filled out, so to speak, with the overture to Pique Dame, which is also played very well – but “filled out” is a matter of opinion and is one of those quibbles that listeners are likely to have, for even with the four-minute overture included, the disc lasts less than 54 minutes. First-class the performance is in many ways, but will listeners want to pay $20 for the latest version of such a mainstream-repertoire piece that essentially stands alone on its disc, at a time when it is common for companies to offer recordings lasting 80 minutes?

     The question is even more serious for Kitajenko’s (+++) recording of the “Pathétique,” which stands entirely alone on its SACD and in which the conductor’s approach to the music is not nearly as successful. Here the whole symphony is taken at a lugubrious pace: this work typically runs about 45 minutes, but Kitajenko stretches it to 51. More importantly, the extra length does not produce significant revelations about the music – it simply makes this already depressive symphony sound even more morose than usual. The first movement runs 20 minutes and really drags; the second is marked Allegro con grazia, but grace is lacking here; the third is martial enough but feels draggy. It is only the fourth movement that really benefits from Kitajenko’s approach, which turns it into a true lamentation and sad farewell to life. But because the contrast between this movement and the earlier ones is not as great as it could be, the effect of this deeply felt finale is somewhat lessened. This is certainly a consistent recording: Kitajenko knows just what he wants, and the orchestra gives it all to him. And the recorded sound is, again, excellent. But with the symphony and nothing else on this SACD, and with an interpretation that is certainly heartfelt but ultimately less than compelling, it is hard to imagine the disc being highly attractive to anyone except listeners who are eager to collect the complete Tchaikovsky symphonies with Kitajenko as the cycle continues to be released.

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