Mendelssohn in Birmingham, Volume 4 – CBSO/Edward Gardner – Violin Concerto with Jennifer Pike and Music for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream [Chandos]

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Violin Concerto in E minor, Op.64
A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Overture, Op.21 & Incidental Music, Op.61

Jennifer Pike (violin)

Rhian Lois & Keri Fuge (sopranos) and CBSO Youth Chorus

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Edward Gardner

Recorded 13 & 14 July 2015 in Town Hall, Birmingham

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: February 2016
Duration: 68 minutes



Having recorded the numbered Symphonies and several Overtures for Chandos, Edward Gardner and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra now turn to Mendelssohn’s best-known Concerto and his Incidental Music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream as they continue their worthwhile “Mendelssohn in Birmingham” series.

Unlike most of his Symphonies, Mendelssohn’s E-minor Violin Concerto (1844) has never fallen out of favour. A work that takes its composer’s formal and expressive concerns to a virtual peak of perfection can all too easily be taken for granted, making this account from Jennifer Pike the more admirable. Her rapport with Gardner is evident from the outset, though it is in her fluent rendering of the first-movement’s developmental cadenza that the performance really hits its stride. This is maintained over a plaintively expressive Andante which unfolds with an almost barcarolle-like gait in its outer sections and no lack of pathos in its central one, then throughout a Finale whose spirited progress evinces no trace of the blandness that so often mars this understatedly innovative music. Only a touch of insipidness and a tendency to glide through more incisive passage-work prevents this from being among the finest recent accounts, while the CBSO’s always responsive accompaniment enables one to savour the detail as well as the counter-melodies to be brought out in the orchestral writing.

It has often been remarked that the sixteen years between Mendelssohn’s Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the 1842 incidental music for the first German staging of Shakespeare’s play are of no account in terms of continuity of inspiration, the overall score ‘taking in’ this drama in all essentials.

In a recording though the problem arises how best to present music whose element of melodrama is not inconsiderable: the present selection is an unofficial 40-minute ‘suite’ making for a sequence which is logical while not necessarily cohesive.

Gardner secures a committed response from the CBSO – not least in an Overture which finds a persuasive balance between the spirit and human domains, if without quite the spontaneous wonder such as numerous predecessors have found in it. The ‘Scherzo’ is trenchant and quick-witted, while ‘You spotted snakes’ features Rhian Lois and Keri Fuge in mellifluous accord, then the alternately restless and jovial ‘Intermezzo’ is finely delineated. The not untroubled serenity of the ‘Notturno’ might have been more affecting at a marginally steadier tempo, though Gardner’s incisiveness does ensure the pomp of the ‘Wedding March’ never feels overbearing. After the robust vigour of ‘Dance of the Clowns’, the CBSO Youth Chorus exudes mystery and enchantment in the final ‘Through the house’ – its rendering of the Overture’s concluding cadence a fair definition of the change from early- to mid-Romanticism. A pity both the ‘Fairy March’ and ‘Funeral March’ (Nos.2 & 10 from the complete score) are omitted – an enhancement out of all proportion to their brevity.

Overall, these are persuasive accounts of music as wears its 175 years and more lightly. The SACD sound is comparable to earlier issues in this series, as are the booklet notes by Bayan Northcott and Gerald Larner, and with sung texts included. Not the only versions to have, but recommended all the same.

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