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Mendelssohn: Symphony No 4; Schubert: Symphony No 5 / Brown, Norwegian CO

Release Date: 02/08/2011 
Label:  Naim Audio   Catalog #: 26   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Felix MendelssohnFranz Schubert
Conductor:  Iona Brown
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Norwegian Chamber Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Length: 0 Hours 55 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

SCHUBERT Symphony No. 5. MENDELSSOHN Symphony No. 4, “Italian” Iona Brown, cond; Norwegian CO NAIM 026 (54:41)

"This is the sort of disc you put on and just enjoy without making mental comparisons to competing versions. These live performances date from 1997, but the recordings sound freshly minted. As I’m sure readers know, Iona Brown, who died in 2004, was long associated with the Academy of St. Martin in Read more the Fields, first as a violinist in the ensemble, and then eventually as its director. She was appointed artistic director of the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra in 1981.

In my experience, both as listener and player in Schubert’s Symphony No. 5, I would have to say that only an act of Congress could mess it up. Technically, the piece practically plays itself, but the score’s sunny surface simplicity can be deceptive. It’s music of such a seeming sweetness and boyhood innocence that one would hardly suspect the already profound psychological disorder disturbing its young composer’s mind. But the facts are otherwise. The piece is anything but the immaculate conception of a chaste child—Schubert was already 19 when he wrote the piece in 1816—and its straightforwardness to the ear conceals a number of irregularities.

First, the instrumentation is lightweight for its time, omitting clarinets, trumpets, and timpani. This is what lends the score its transparent texture. A second and more striking feature, though Schubert wasn’t the first to employ it, is the departure from the strict sonata-allegro form principle of returning to the home key for the recapitulation. Here Schubert begins the recap in E?, the subdominant. This neat little trick renders moot the necessity to alter the exposition’s modulating bridge material in order to remain in the home key, for starting four steps below the home key and then following basically the same modulating course taken in the exposition, the second theme will, of necessity, end up five steps higher which, in this case, will be the home key of B?. Mozart employed this very same technique in his beloved C-Major Piano Sonata, K 545.

Yet another striking feature of the symphony occurs in the Andante. This one Schubert possibly picked up from Beethoven, but it’s still very Schubertian, and that is the modulation down by a major third from the movement’s home key of E? to C?, a most arresting effect. Taken together, all of these factors are a clear indication that this is not the effort of an inexperienced or innocent composer. To the contrary, it’s a highly sophisticated work; that it sounds simple is evidence of Schubert’s genius.

No meddling by Congress insures that the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra’s performance goes swimmingly. As I said at the beginning, this is the sort of disc you just sit back and enjoy without fretting over whether some other conductor and ensemble do it better.

One might argue over whether Mendelssohn’s genius was as sophisticated or bountiful as Schubert’s, but there can be no argument that Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony poses far greater technical challenges for orchestra and conductor than does Schubert’s Fifth Symphony. I’d even go so far as to say that the “Italian’s” concluding saltarello is one of the most difficult movements to play in the entire symphonic literature. The ostinato figure that pervades the movement—a nasty triplet pattern in presto tempo, interrupted by a glottal stop in the middle of the first and third triplets of the bar—is an articulation nightmare for everyone, but especially so for the winds due to the tonguing difficulties it poses. And then there are those whiplash diminuendos that have to be so perfectly timed and calibrated."

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 4 in A major, Op. 90 "Italian" by Felix Mendelssohn
Conductor:  Iona Brown
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Norwegian Chamber Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1833; Germany 
Date of Recording: 1997 
Venue:  Hamar, Norway 
Symphony no 5 in B flat major, D 485 by Franz Schubert
Conductor:  Iona Brown
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Norwegian Chamber Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1816; Vienna, Austria 
Date of Recording: 1997 
Venue:  Hamar, Norway 

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