This recording could be regarded as a celebration of the triumphant performance in Birmingham of ‘Hymn of Praise’ that Mendelssohn himself conducted. His description of it (in fact the fourth of his five mature Symphonies) as being a ‘Symphony-Cantata is apt. I rather like the suggestion that the supposedly lost “nearly complete” Symphony that Mendelssohn was engaged on a year or two earlier than the publication of ‘Hymn of Praise’ may have connection with its first three movements. That structurally it does not make a satisfactory Symphony did not worry audiences of Queen Victoria’s time and ‘Hymn of Praise’ was enormously popular for many years.
However, opening the work with a bold trombone theme, and returning to it to commence the extended choral finale and finally featuring the tune on the majestic last pages does at least suggest an element of symphonic unity.
Edward Gardner’s generally light touch has the effect of making the first three movements seem introductory to the last one, the score describing them as ‘Sinfonia’. The essence of Gardner’s interpretation can be anticipated from the opening where three trombones intone the ‘motto’ clearly and strongly but by no means heavily. Come the introduction to the finale Gardner makes the transition to voices with clarity, and gentility. The trombones re-introduce the ‘motto with a restrained rendering of the forte instruction and the choral entry is very impressive – a large body of singers widely spread and with rich sonorities.
Later I was particularly struck by the glowing choral tone in ‘The Night is departing’ supported by the organ. Then follows a chorale, which is best known as the Anglican Hymn ‘Now thank we all our God’, although the translation used here was made by Novello and published in 1850, so the chorus begins: “Let all men praise the Lord”.
The organ is part of the scoring here and in the final number, always adding stirring colouration. However with the CBSO this instrument, and the timpani for that matter, gives subtle warmth; by contrast, in the Harmonia Mundi release (using the German text) the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Pablo Heras-Casado has a very clear presence, achieving greater drama.
Although this is nominally a Symphony the vocal contributions are important and the subtle difference in tonal quality between Sophie Bevan and Mary Bevan (sisters). There is a slight difference in timbre between them: Mary has a touch of ‘mezzo’ quality while still singing in the high range whereas Sophie has a bright voice. Benjamin Hulett has an ideally flexible tenor and the most important of his contributions – generally called the ‘Watchman’ aria – is elegantly sung.
This is a strong, sympathetic reading of ‘Hymn of Praise’ with very fine playing from the CBSO (yet would listeners prefer greater impact from it?) and the Chorus is superb, yet the quality of the instrumental sound is admirable and an appropriate sense of grandeur is achieved in the big moments.
The disc opens with the Goethe-inspired Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. The long, hushed introduction is rather touching and Gardner makes it exceptionally beautiful. The sound is more positive here than in the Symphony, the Molto allegro is crisply fiery, the woodwind-playing is exceptionally fine and the timpani contribution in the coda is powerful. Edward Gardner has a special understanding of Mendelssohn; his approach both to this Symphony and the Overture is sympathetic and very perceptive.