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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Mendelssohn in Birmingham - Volume 2
Overture to Ruy Blas Op. 95 [7:20]
Symphony No. 1 in C minor Op. 11 [29:56]
Symphony No. 3 in A minor Op.56 Scottish [37:11]
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner
rec. Birmingham Town Hall, 2013/14

The most important of Mendelssohn’s connections with Birmingham was the first performance of Elijah in the Town Hall in 1846. He also visited the city and its grand Town Hall on several other occasions from 1837 to not long before his death in 1847. In itself, though, these connections are an unnecessary excuse for the series of recordings of which this is the second volume. Other cities, notably Leipzig, have a much closer connection that has been celebrated already in many recordings of the composer’s music, and there can be no direct connection between the composer and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the latter having been formed only in 1920. The merit of this disc lies not in the limited historical connections but in the considerable merits of the performances found here.

The Symphony No. 1 is rarely included in concert programmes, perhaps understandably given its very obvious indebtedness to Mozart’s G minor Symphony K550. Even so, it is worth an occasional outing, especially when played as it is here. A kind of suave impetuosity is what is needed and is what it gets here. As in all Mendelssohn’s music it is essential that the music’s clarity and precision should be respected although in itself this is not enough. Urgency and an unsentimental response to the deeper and more lyrical aspects are also essential. All of these are present here with the result that even the more obviously derivative parts of the work are enjoyable.

The Scottish by contrast is a self-evident masterpiece where the best the performer can hope to do is to match the music’s inspiration. For most of the work that is the case here. For instance Gardner makes good sense of the composer’s directions in respect of the speed of the fast part of the first movement. This starts Allegro un poco agitato but is soon marked assai animato. In poor performances the gear changes to this and back again — unmarked but obvious — can be uncomfortable but here they are made to sound very natural, as I am sure the composer intended. My only criticism of the performance, with which not all will agree, is that the Allegro maestoso assai at the end of the Symphony is taken too fast. A slower speed allows the maestoso aspect to predominate, making this the real climax of the Symphony. Gardner is however by no means alone in doing this and it does not efface the merits of the performance as a whole.

The disc is well recorded and has excellent notes by Bayan Northcott. There are many fine recordings of Mendelssohn’s symphonies either as a whole or individually but this is a very worthwhile addition to the catalogue, especially for the performance of the Symphony No. 1.

John Sheppard

Previous review: Brian Wilson

Masterwork Index: Mendelssohn symphonies