Album title: Felix Mendelssohn Symphony No.4 “Italian" & Symphony No.5 “Reformation"
Performers: Lorin Maazel, conductor / The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Label: Speakers Corner DGG SLPM 138 684
Playing time: Playing time: 53' 12"
Recorded: September 1961

Born 1930, Lorin Maazel, Jewish-American musical prodigy brought up in the United States, was soon nurtured into conductor, violinist and composer. He was the first American to conduct the Beyreuth Festival in 1960 and in 2008 the first American to lead a first-ever American orchestra in Pyongyang the North Korean capital with the New York Philharmonic. Considering this Mendelssohn recording was made in September 1961, few would dispute that Mr. Maazel was far from his professional maturity then.

His major appointment came much later as the chief conductor of the Deutsche Oper Berlin (1965-1971) and Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra from 1965 to 1975. His rise to international fame was considered to be his succession to Georg Szell's Cleveland (1972-1982) and Pittsburgh Symphony (1984 as musical consultant, 1988-1996 as musical director). In 1989 he was expected to become Karajan's successor at the Berlin Philharmonic. When the prestigious post went to Abaddo instead, grapevine quickly turned sour grape and Mr. Maazel publicly severed all connections with the orchestra since. In that regard, this 'historical' documentary of the young conductor's early days with the Berliners should be nothing short of a memento.

Indeed for the 'Italian' Symphony, Maazel's BPO is youthful and vibrant. Except for the ballad-like "Andante" movement rendered with a dash of poeticism, the other three movements are bubbling with effervescent vitality.

The orchestral sound—unlike the Karajan sound we know—is well defined with textural dexterity. All this somewhat fits the Italian Symphony. In fact, like Bizet's youthful Symphony in C, this musical travelogue hardly goes wrong with any conductor and orchestras of decent skills. What went wrong from my perspective was the 'Reformation'.

Mendelssohn wrote the 'Reformation' Symphony in 1833 to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Lutheran Church - or to be more specific, the Augsburg Confession. 'Celebrate' has been universally accepted in most program notes that accompany this symphony but it is in fact very misleading. A more appropriate word should have been 'commemorate' or 'venerate'. There was nothing worth celebrating about the Augsburg Confession. The establishment of the Lutheran Church was a painfully long struggle. For both the Roman Catholic and Lutheran Church, the confession ended up a lose-lose situation. When the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V convened an imperial diet at Augsburg in 1530 attempting to resolve religious and political conflicts among all German rulers and free cities/states with the goal to form a unity pact against the Turkish invasion, Elector John of Saxony, the most resolute protector of the Protestant Reformation, directed Martin Luther and three of his key followers to summarize their faith in both Latin and German text.

To cut a long history short, after more than three months' work, from the initial draft approved by Luther (who was still outlawed by the Vatican and didn't participated in the diet) to eventual concessions suggested by the Saxon chancellor and the Bishop of Augsburg, the final 'Confession' was adopted and signed by all political leaders in support of the Lutheran Church and presented to the Emperor and the Vatican representatives.

Despite the self-cautionary abstention from offensive languages, the Augsburg Confession was met with the unforgiving Pontifical Confutation, ordering reformers to renounce heresy or to face the imperial army, confirming Luther's belief that any concession would be futile. The Lutheran supporting princes had no choice but to form a military alliance that came to be known as the Schmalkaldic League. Charles V, despite winning the Schmalkaldic War, eventually granted Lutheranism legal status in the Peace of Augsburg treaty of 1555. Sadly, Martin Luther didn't see that day for he died in 1546.

What made these intertwining historical facts more entangled was that Luther became known for his extreme Anti-Semitism in his later days and Mendelssohn was undeniably the most famous Jewish composer. Mendelssohn throughout his childhood and young adulthood had no religious inclination until he was baptized as Lutheran. His wife was the daughter of a Protestant clergyman. Good for Mendelssohn – a Jewish composer who put music and arts above religion. The 'Reformation' Symphony reflects solemn soul searching with devout piety. Three hundred years after the bitter confession and confutation, the music is definitely not about rejoicing in a celebration. It's in memory of the political hardship and religious perseverance.  
If you disagree and maintain that the symphony is befittingly a celebratory affair, then Maazel's interpretation is perfect. It's jubilant jubilee through and through. It's firework music for Lutherans. Alas, I have come under the blessing of Karajan for too long and couldn't tune my ears to anything less. Comparing to the young Maazel in 1961, Karajan was named musical director for life of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1955 and this particular recording of 1974 was at the height of his creative powers. Though often criticized for his "highly refined, lacquered, calculatedly voluptuous sound and a prefabricated artificial quality" (American critic Harvey Sachs), Karajan did a few things so right that I'd swear I've never been so close to the heart of the music. The 'Reformation' is one of them. And Tosca, The Merry Widow, the 'Pathetic' Symphony…

I wasn't trying to intellectualize the 'Reformation'. It was Karajan who baptized me with his historical and spiritual insight through his interpretation of the work conducting the Berlin Philharmonic [DGG 2530 416] when I first heard it in the 70s. Yes, I was converted. The agony that the Lutheran believers endured, the unyielding commitment they vowed and the grace they must have felt when recognition came at long last – all this spiritual tension building up in the first three movements and the ultimate resolution in the last movement were so clearheadedly conceived and skillfully conveyed by Karajan. To a certain extent, this has something to do with the tempi. Karajan certainly knew how to use them to best effect. Comparing his timing of the four movements to the conviviality drive of Maazel is revealing:
Maazel's timing: 10'33"/5'22"/3'00"/7'55"
Karajan's timing: 12'57"/6'54"/4'25"/8'53"

The same orchestra under the batons of two distinctively different conductors with polarizing approaches, recorded in the same venue Jesus Christus Kirche of Berlin, made this symphony more inspirational. Maazel's tempo change from the third to the fourth movement was abrupt and impetuous, rushing into a celebratory mood whereas Karajan poised for a supranatural transition. His concluding movement was statesmanlike, reflecting on the earlier movements. Sonically, Maazel was detailed and textured, Karajan was as smooth as silk and rich in harmonies. If you think that's polished, I'd like to suggest a better word: purified.