Mendelssohn in Birmingham, Volume 1 – CBSO/Edward Gardner – The Hebrides, Italian and Reformation Symphonies [Chandos]

0 of 5 stars
Overture, The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave), Op.26
Symphony No.5 in D, Op.107 (Reformation)
Symphony No.4 in A, Op.90 (Italian)

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Edward Gardner

Recorded 20 & 21 October 2013 in Town Hall, Birmingham

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: February 2014
Duration: 66 minutes

“Mendelssohn in Birmingham” finds the CBSO and Edward Gardner celebrating the composer’s relationship with the city’s Town Hall at which he conducted his music. Gardner is recording Symphonies 1 to 5 there for Chandos (numbers 1 and 3 are pending release). The Hebrides begins in gloomily romantic fashion, there is a sense of danger within the misty atmosphere, and the melodies are shaped with beautiful tone and affection. Maybe Gardner takes too lingering a view at times, perhaps some speed increases are more subito than the composer intended, but it’s a performance full of life and incident – plenty of spirit if not always to the letter – and the CBSO is fully attentive to its Principal Guest Conductor, Gardner surely in the running to replace the Boston-bound Andris Nelsons.

For all that this release is arranged in chronological order of composition (symphony and opus numbers do not correspond to dates), not much can follow the regal conclusion of the ‘Reformation’ Symphony; so, like Mendelssohn, it was then off to Rome. His ‘Italian’ Symphony is always a joy. Maybe Gardner drives the first movement a little too hard; there is plenty of energy but a lack of carefree elation. The woodwinds’ pulsations at the opening need to be a little clearer and there are turns in the music that could be savoured more, but at least the exposition is repeated: Mendelssohn didn’t write all those lead-back bars just to have them ignored. A broader step is needed in the nocturnal tread of the second movement, Gardner is a little too much con moto here, and the gentle lyricism of the third is pushed along at the expense of expressive curves. Gardner is on song with the finale, one of the fastest, and although it’s exciting and exactingly played there is also the feeling of speed for its own sake.

The ‘Reformation’ (one of Mendelssohn’s greatest if underrated achievements) is brought off with greater distinction if not quite in the league of Lorin Maazel’s dramatic Berlin account (DG) or the beguiling one that Colin Davis conjured with the Bavarian Radio SO for Orfeo. Plenty of tension though in the solemn “Dresden Amen” introduction – also featured in Wagner’s Parsifal – and in the Allegro con fuoco, Gardner is ironically rather too measured – Maazel is stunning here – but there is plenty still to relish, not least the greater fire of the development. Gardner moves the scherzo along apace, whereas Colin Davis gives it with loving breathing space, yet Gardner’s robust way has its own persuasion if not in keeping with Bayan Northcott’s apt description of this movement in the booklet note (“dainty … charming”) and keeps the trio moving in relation to what has gone before. The heartfelt beauty of the slow movement is tenderly realised, though, and the flute solo (with other winds) that carries with it “Ein’ feste Burg” is played with real artistry, the weighty finale then launched by noble brass, pounding rhythms, genuine elation and some welcome time-taken poeticism; the coda is adrenaline-fuelled and full of grandiosity. Yet to be recorded by Gardner, his approach to the ‘Reformation’ suggests that Symphony No.2 (Hymn of praise) could be rather special.

So, some reservations, but none with the recorded sound – warmly and spaciously vivid – or the presentation, the front cover being a pen-and-ink sketch by Mendelssohn himself. That really personalises things.

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