MENDELSSOHN: Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 11. Symphony No. 2 in B-flat, Op. 52 "Lobgesang." Symphony No. 3 in A minor, O. 56 "Scottish." Symphony No. 4 in A, Op. 90. "Italian." Symphony No. 5 in D, Op. 107 "Reformation."
Santiago Calderon, Maria José Suárez,Valentina Valente, Madrid Symphony Orchestra, Orféon Donostiarra/Peter Maag, cond.
Arts Music  47620  (3 CD) (M) (DDD) TT: 3 hours 40 min.

Although the late Peter Maag (1919-2001) was Swiss-born and -trained, he enjoyed an international career, if never quite as celebrated as his best conducting deserved. However, he recorded a good deal, including the complete symphonies of Beethoven and Mendelssohn, and a welcome abundance of Mozart. Two English Decca recordings with the London Symphony have been coupled on one CD in the company's “Legends” series: Mendelssohn’s complete score for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and the “Scottish” Symphony, taped respectively in 1957 and 1960. Maag recorded the “Scottish” at least twice more—a version on the IMP label that I don’t know (label or performance), and this one on the Italian Arts label in 1997 with the Madrid Symphony Orchestra, coupled with a superlative reading of the “Italian” made at the same time. Earlier that year, Arts recorded his performance of Symphony No. 2, the “Lobgesang” written to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press—the best I’ve heard of that work although competition has included Helmut Rilling, Christoph von Dohnányi and Gerard Schwarz. Note: I write “has included” since record catalogs have been decimated everywhere in the world. Maag has the benefit of three excellent soloists and the superb Orfeón Donostiarra chorus, which is not to overlook the Madrid Symphony. It may not have the sheer numbers or tonal individuality of Europe’s great orchestras, but is impressively disciplined in every other particular, from intonation to balance to nuance.

“ Lobgesang” in lesser hands can take on a Victorian pall (I used to own a complete-symphonies set by Kurt Masur and the Leipzig Gewandhausorkester, Mendelssohn’s own orchestra a century earlier, that came nowhere near Maag and his Madrid forces in any department). But Maag has restored the piece to its place just behind the late liturgical works by Schubert, and Arts has included the text in English as well as German. As for the “Scottish” Symphony, Maag’s overall tempo is a minute or so slower than the 1960 “Legend” on London Decca without disturbing his grasp of proportions anywhere. No one, I’ll risk the opinion, has played the “Allegro maestoso assai” coda of the finale with such inevitable “rightness.” As for the “Italian,” I could live twice my too-many decades with this Maag-Madrid performance as the one to hear when the mood strikes me.

Symphonies 1 and 5 are serious early works (both the “Italian” and “Reformation” Fifth were published after his death with wildly wrong opus numbers), the work of a master composer feeling his way to maturity. Maag leads them idiomatically, rousingly in the case of the “Reformation,”another centennial work, this one celebrating Martin Luther’s apostasy. And throughout the set all the repeats are painstakingly observed. Add sound of contemporary amplitude and clarity and you have a vibrant bargain set of Mendelssohn’s five adult symphonies worth far more than the asking price. Indeed recommended!

R.D. (November 2003)