Tag Archives: Chamber Music

Mendelssohn: The Five Symphonies

Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra

Sebastian Lang-Lessing (conductor)



ABC Classics 476 4623 (3CDs + DVD)



TPT: 128’ 52”

reviewed by Neville Cohn


Last year, when the world was awash with performances of the music of Mendelssohn to mark the bicentenary of the composer’s birth in 1809, many regular concertgoers who thought they had a good overview of his music, found themselves on an often gratifying journey of discovery. This applied particularly to his chamber music, the complete string quartets, say, which for many might well have proved revelatory.  


As far as the symphonies are concerned, most concertgoers would readily be able to identify the works dubbed Scottish and Italian. They are frequently performed and with good reason. And mini-polls I’ve conducted in the foyers of this or that concert venue around the city reveal clearly that, frequently, even the keenest of music followers have only the vaguest ideas about the existence of Mendelssohn’s other symphonic utterances apart from the ubiquitous Third and Fourth.


Bear in mind, too, that by the time Mendelssohn got round to composing what we know now as his Symphony No 1, he had been at work in the genre for much of his adolescence, producing a stream of so-called string symphonies. Many of these are astonishingly original without a hint that they’d been written by a teenager.


This 3-CD + DVD set will, I believe, bring many new adherents to the flag, not least for providing an opportunity to hear works that only very rarely appear on concert programmes these days.


Listen to Sebastian Lang-Lessing’s direction of the Tasmania Symphony Orchestra in Mendelssohn’s Symphony No 1. How splendidly this fine ensemble evokes the ebullience of the first movement. It’s a performance which brims with energy, again and again carrying the listener forward on the crest of a finely stated orchestral wave. Lang-Lessing and the TSO are no less persuasive in the second movement; its gentle, lyrical calm makes it a near-perfect foil for the energetic bustle that precedes it.


In the Minuetto, Mendelssohn’s usually sure touch is less apparent; it is overly bucolic music and the Trio excessively solemn and serious. But the finale is inspired as is its performance, not least for excellent clarinet playing and precise pizzicato which add  significantly to the engaging bustle of the music.














The Scottish Symphony is in a class of its own. How intriguing that a German could identify so profoundly with Scotland based on the briefest of visits to that part of the world. (Consider, too, the quite magically atmospheric Fingal’s Cave Overture. When will some musical Scot turn out a couple of masterpieces after some brief encounter with Germany? Don’t hold your breath!)



Lang-Lessing makes magic of the first movement. Clarinet playing in the Vivace non troppo is beyond reproach in a movement that is as Scottish as a tartan kilt and sporran.

A shrewd commentator once described the finale as “a wild dance of rude Highlanders who stamp furiously into a smug coda………”. And who would gainsay that view on the basis of this splendidly bracing account?


Almost invariably, when Mendelssohn visited England, there’d be an invitation to Buckingham Palace. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were great admirers of the famed composer – and Victoria would, shyly, sing some of the lieder by “dear Dr Mendelssohn” with the composer accompanying at the piano. And when the composer asked if he might dedicate his Scottish Symphony to her, she agreed at once. Victoria would often attend public performances of Mendelssohn’s music which invariably ensured full houses.


Inspiration informs just about every moment of this account of the Italian Symphony with Lang-Lessing and the TSO coming through with honour not only intact but enhanced. There’s not a dull moment here. The quick movements crackle with energy, the opening allegro vivace splendidly precise at top speed as is the ever-engaging Saltarello. Intriguingly, this exquisite movement, which sounds as if it might have been conceived in a single, sustained burst of highest inspiration, never quite satisfied the composer who seriously considered revising it. Happily, he didn’t; it comes as close to perfection as anything he ever wrote.


But not even the skill and commitment of the players can persuade this listener that the first movement of the Reformation Symphony is other than ponderously dull and the allegro vivace that follows amiable but unremarkable. Mendelssohn’s inspiration was no less in short supply in the pompous, lacklustre finale. But that certainly does not lessen the importance of including it – and the dreary and overlong Lobgesang – in this important recording enterprise.


It says a great deal for the skill and commitment of both conductor and orchestra that, for the duration of Lobgeasang and the Reformation symphony, these works sound far better than they in fact are.

The Classic 100

Australia’s 100 favourite symphonies

ABC Classics 480 2832/ 480 2837  8 CDs

reviewed by Neville Cohn

480 2842 Symphony 100 Box 3D

It was an event unique in the music history of Australia: a countrywide vote for the nation’s favourite 100 symphonies, an event hosted by The Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

This was not the first time that the ABC  – and the record label ABC Classics – had instituted an initiative along these lines – but not in relation to symphonies.

In earlier years, there had been nationwide voting to establish Australia’s tastes in chamber music as well as the piano repertoire, favourite Mozart moments and many other music genres along these lines.

This symphonic countdown was a particularly remarkable experience. After voting had closed, the ABC began the mammoth task of broadcasting each of the 100 symphonies in their entirety, starting with the symphony at number 100 ( by co-incidence, it was Haydn’s Symphony No 100).

It was a fascinating experience, not only listening to the works in their order of popularity but also to messages  – reactions, opinions, congratulations, reservations – from those many enthusiasts across Australia who phoned in to the ABC to share their views on the whole enterprise.

Has any other radio station anywhere provided such a mammoth listening experience?

The collection on the ABC Classics label – on eight compact discs – contains the ten symphonies voted as most popular in their entirety with a number of the remaining 90 symphonies each represented by a single movement. It’s not an ideal arrangement and

I’m certain that the compilers would have wanted all 100 symphonies to have been available in toto. But I imagine that the full collection would have been so expensive as to be beyond the pocket of many, if not most.

One would have to wonder how some of these works got onto the list – and how many votes were cast in total? Without this crucial component, one can only speculate.

Were the numbers so small as to be an embarrassment? I rather doubt that – but one cannot be sure.

How many voted for Ross Edwards’ Symphony? How many votes were cast in, say, New South Wales or the Northern Territory – or Christmas Island?

How many voters plumped for, say, Tchaikowsky or Sibelius? How did Brahms fare in Tasmania, say, or Haydn in Norfolk Island – or Messiaen in W.A.?

It seems to me that if such an ambitious enquiry into Australia’s symphonic tastes was undertaken, why not get the figures out there? And if whatever reason, voting numbers are to be suppressed, then why not provide percentage figures in relation to the total vote count which would certainly be of great interest.

Intriguingly, how many votes were cast in favour of symphonies that didn’t make the list at all? Which were they? How close did they come to inclusion?

The answer could well be revelatory – or not. Without these figures, one is left to surmise.

How many would have voted for Australia’s No 1 symphony – Dvorak’s New World, a worthy winner, although possibly a surprise to those who might have felt that  Beethoven’s Ninth or Tchaikovsky’s Sixth would be first over the line?

Audience tastes, of course, vary over time and place. Consider these results from a poll taken in 1938 by New York radio station WQXR. It makes fascinating reading:

Beethoven’s Fifth came out on top with 23.9% of the votes, Beethoven’s Seventh came second with 18.3% and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth came third with 16.5%.  Beethoven’s Ninth, Third and Sixth were respectively fourth, sixth and twelfth.

At the time, it was suggested by some commentators that it was only a matter of time

before the Seventh outstripped the Fifth. Time has shown that it didn’t happen. It  probably never will.

(I wasn’t able to obtain figures for other composers: placings for Dvorak, Mozart, Haydn and Mahler which would have made interesting reading.)

If, for whatever reason, the ABC Classics compilers didn’t want to reveal the voting numbers, it would surely have been a straightforward enough task to disclose the percentage voting figures as was the case with the New York radio station.

Although some of the recordings of the Top Ten works are of leading overseas orchestras, a very considerable number of the tracks on these eight CDs are by Australian orchestras, although one would wonder why the W.A.Symphony Orchestra is represented by only one track. The WASO’s form has come along impressively in recent years and it’s a shame it doesn’t have more representation on compact disc.

Apart from the top ten in toto, single-movement excerpts from 19 other symphonies round out the eight CDs of the set – ten hours listening time.

Tokyo String Quartet



Perth Concert Hall

reviewed by Neville Cohn


To listen to the Tokyo ensemble is akin to being ushered into the presence of musical demi-gods. These four superlative players have succeeded in subjugating their individuality in favour of a corporate music persona which, for decades, has enchanted audiences worldwide.


Tokyo String Quartet

Tokyo String Quartet

An account of Mendelssohn’s Quartet in A minor opus was a case in point, a glorious, flawless scaling of Olympus that left this listener groping for adjectives to convey the transcendental merit of the magnificent four.  


Most of this quartet is light years away from Mendelssohn’s trademark evocations of fairy fun. This is darker music by far, not least in the slow movement which was presented, with rich, organ-like sonorities, as a little miracle of profound expressiveness. Queen Victoria, a lifelong fan, once called Mendelssohn “a wonderful genius”. Could it have been this quartet which prompted that regal pat on the back?


Beethoven’s opus 95, his most compact utterance in chamber music, was given such superlative treatment as to be beyond criticism in the conventional sense. I dare say that had the shade of the notoriously tetchy composer hovered over the proceedings, it would surely have purred with pleasure. By even the most ferociously critical of standards, this, surely, was an interpretation that set the standard by which all other performances of the work would have to be judged.


Much the same could be said of Hugo Wolf’s Italian Serenade in which the four musicians, like some Midas-clones, transformed everything they touched in this amiable work to musical gold. Certainly, in the hands of the four, even the most routine succession of notes was transformed into a compelling listening experience.


Carl Vine’s Quartet no 5 is a work of many moods, ranging from the bleak to the jaunty. Early on, the music is informed by a romantic ardour that calls Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night to mind. At every point, the writing is informed by an engaging immediacy. It was beautifully played by the Tokyo Quartet in a performance which brimmed with subtle nuances of tone and tempo. I imagine that any composer would give eye teeth to have their music performed by so superb an ensemble; it was one of the evening’s many highlights.


In so democratic an institution as a string quartet, it is perhaps invidious to single out an individual for special mention. But it would be ungracious not to particularly praise the artistry of violist extraordinaire Kazuhide Isomura.  In the hands of this veteran of countless concerts, the viola, that most treacherous of string instruments, did his bidding beautifully as it sang for its master with a rare purity of pitch and tone.