CBSO/Edward Gardner – Mendelssohn programme with Martin Helmchen [First and Scottish Symphonies]

Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.11
Piano Concerto No.2 in D minor, Op.40
Symphony No.3 in A minor, Op.56 (Scottish)

Martin Helmchen (piano)

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Edward Gardner

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 24 October, 2013
Venue: Town Hall, Birmingham

Edward Gardner. Photograph: Benjamin EalovegaThe second instalment of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s Mendelssohn cycle featured what are the first and last of his ‘official’ symphonies, along with a work that was premiered in this building 176 years ago and which was once known as the ‘Birmingham Concerto’ at a time when the composer’s stock was at a peak of recognition.

Among the least often heard ‘first symphonies’ by a major composer, Mendelssohn’s No.1 (1824 – technically No.13 given the twelve symphonies for strings that preceded it) was itself overshadowed by his masterpieces from later in the decade. Stylistic influences are less evident than might be imagined, though that of Weber’s opera Der Freischütz (premiered in Berlin barely two years before) permeates the initial Allegro with its impassioned manner and headlong rhythmic drive – qualities to the fore in Edward Gardner’s powerfully delineated account, which also brought welcome clarity to the dense orchestration. The Andante inhabits a notably more pastoral mood, yet one whose emotional equanimity is often undercut by unexpected tonal shifts as were tellingly underlined here, while the Minuet’s strutting energy found effective contrast in the trio’s folk-like songfulness. Here and in the finale, Mozart’s Fortieth Symphony (K550) is pervasive, though certainly not in a major-key coda that emerges to take the work through to its almost nonchalant close.

Martin Helmchen. Photograph: Marco BorggreveAlthough it is unlikely to regain the popularity it enjoyed over the course of its first century, the Second Piano Concerto (1837) remains among the most attractive instances of the genre when far removed from the ambitions of Beethoven’s Fifth (‘Emperor’) or Brahms’s First Concertos. Not that the piece is any sense an ‘easy option’ – the solo part requires a quicksilver virtuosity that Martin Helmchen delivered throughout this deftly conceived and brilliantly executed reading. He and Gardner evinced immediate rapport, with the latter mindful to point up the thematic connections across one of Mendelssohn’s most understatedly unified works. Dominated by its tense opening Allegro, this comes into its own with the Adagio – arguably the most appealing of those ‘song without words’ whose form the composer utilised on a larger scale – and a finale whose inedible rhythmic profile is sustained right through to the scintillating conclusion. Easy to underestimate, it was a pleasure to re-encounter this work in such a finely attuned and effervescent performance.

The second half brought a fine account of the ‘Scottish’ Symphony (1842), the only completed as well as long-gestated symphony from Mendelssohn’s full maturity. Inspired by his journey to Scotland at the end of the 1820s, the piece also served as a summation of all he had achieved at this time and was a likely statement of intent for where he was headed. With its introduction fateful yet never portentous, the first movement unfolded as a powerfully judged and cumulative whole (though to have observed the exposition repeat here when that of the ‘Italian’ was omitted seemed rather illogical on Gardner’s part) whose emotional rhetoric and symphonic logic – notably in the development and coda – were tightly integrated. Fleet and capricious, the scherzo was a delight (though Gardner could have observed the attaccas between each movement with greater alacrity), while the pathos of the Adagio was leavened by a sense of the ominous so that it never risked sentimentality. Gardner then set a forthright tempo for the finale to which the strings were more than equal: the transition to the coda had the right sense of expectancy, and the peroration captured the intended jubilance without risk of bombast. Nothing can prevent that coda from highlighting the disparity Mendelssohn must have felt between his stature as a composer and his standing as a performer, which is not to deny its place in a so convincing an account as this.

A fine showing, then, for the CBSO and Gardner, whose cycle (being recorded for Chandos) should certainly assist in bringing Mendelssohn’s achievement in the symphonic domain into renewed focus. The series concludes at Symphony Hall next February 13 with a performance of his most extensive yet least symphonic symphony – the ‘Hymn of Praise’.

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