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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Mendelssohn in Birmingham – Volume 1
Overture, The Hebrides [9:51]
Symphony No. 5 Reformation [27:40]
Symphony No. 4 Italian [28:12]
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner
rec. Town Hall, Birmingham, 20-21 October 2013

What a good idea it was for Chandos to have a series of discs showcasing Mendelssohn’s relationship with the city of Birmingham, and an even better idea to have it played by that city’s modern-day orchestra. True, the works on this disc don’t have as close a connection with Birmingham as several others of the composer’s, but there can be no doubt that Mendelssohn had tremendous affection for that city; it provided him with some spectacular triumphs when he conducted the Birmingham Festival in the 1830s and 1840s. Anyway, who really cares about such matters when the playing is so spectacularly good?
The thing that struck me most about every work on the disc is the tremendous sense of movement that Gardner gets out of both the players and the score. That hits you between the eyes with The Hebrides, and not only in the wonderful flexibility that accompanies the undulating string theme, which here sounds as controlled as it is mobile. It is also in the other effects that Mendelssohn uses to surround his theme: the frequent crescendos and decrescendos have never sounded so present to me as they do here, and the timpani rolls to evoke the swell of the waves seem to appear and recede in perfect proportion. The storm, when it comes, is frenzied without being overcooked, and this proved to be the most satisfying account of this piece to come my way in a very long time.
The symphonies fare just as well. Again, that sense of movement is there, but married with an overall architectural vision. The slow introduction to the Reformation symphony, for example, is pregnant with expectation, waiting for something exciting to happen, and the conflict of the allegro delivers this very satisfyingly. The Scherzo is then full of jaunty self-confidence, almost like a dance, and the string playing of the Andante is full of beautifully tinged melancholy. It then leads into the Feste Burg finale with a minimum of fuss, but this then builds into something of both power and triumph without losing sight of the innate musicality of the piece, never a piece of propaganda for its own sake. It is a tribute to Gardner’s vision that he keeps things on the right side of this line while maintaining a distinct sense of vision that this is where the climax of the piece will come.
The Italian symphony also bristles with life. The opening movement gets going with the crack of a starting pistol and the violins seem to relish every bar of their opening theme. The winds match this enthusiasm with a prinked, staccato rendition of their fugal development theme, and when the two come together it is as satisfying as fitting a square peg into a square hole. The second movement is appropriately con moto with no hint of lingering or wallowing, and the major-key counter theme provides sublime contrast, radiantly played by first the winds and then the strings. The Menuet unfolds with genial expansiveness, and the Saltarello finale explodes out of the speakers with a quick-fire propulsion that will take you aback. Gardner whips the orchestra into a frenzy of excitement, and they match him with playing of precision that is all the more remarkable because it is so intense. That is also true for the strings when they introduce the Tarantella theme, and the growing sense of momentum as the two themes combine is absolutely thrilling, testament to both conductor and orchestra. The final fortissimo chords, which grow in power as they progress, provide a thrilling end to the disc.
So it’s three cheers for this disc, and all the more exciting that this is only Volume 1. It’s a nice bonus that the cover of the disc is a drawing of Birmingham by Mendelssohn himself, and the essays in the booklet are up to Chandos’ usual very high standard. What next? Surely Elijah can’t be too far away, and maybe a few more symphonies? The sooner the better.
Simon Thompson

Previous reviews: John France

Masterwork Index: Symphony 4 ~~ Symphony 5