Here’s a question; is Felix Mendelssohn the most underrated of all ‘great’ composers? Listening to this superb CD, I was struck by how wonderful both these pieces are. Yet neither is overly well represented in concert programmes these days. So this Chandos issue, coming as it does as the third in this series of ‘Mendelssohn in Birmingham’ — which sounds a bit like the title of an obscure Donizetti opera — is to be welcomed with open arms.
Previous volumes contained all the other symphonies, plus some shorter works (Volume 1
~ Volume 2
). The Birmingham connection hasn’t been applied dogmatically; though Mendelssohn was a regular visitor to the city from 1837 until his death ten years later, he pursued a staggeringly busy career all over Europe. Having been appointed Director of the Birmingham Festival in 1840, it’s worth recalling that he was simultaneously directing festivals in Cologne, Düsseldorf, Schwerin and Brunswick.
Thus the overture ‘Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage’, based on two Goethe poems as reflected in the title, was first performed in Berlin in 1832. As the excellent booklet notes (by Bayan Northcott) tell us, Mendelssohn had to reconstruct the score after it was stolen in 1930; if you happen to live in Berlin, do
have a look in the attic. It is a small masterpiece of orchestral writing; the uneasy tranquillity of the opening, with its softly rich string scoring beautifully captures the image of the becalmed ship. Then wisps of flute melody suggest the first hint of a breeze – and away we sail, the music expressing the joy of a resumed journey. There are echoes back and forth through musical history; a powerful descending phrase reminds one of the Beethoven of the Leonora
overtures; the main second theme was famously and explicitly borrowed by Elgar in Variation XIII of Enigma
. The unbridled physicality of the timpani solo – not a quality we normally associate with Mendelssohn – gives the coda thrilling impetus.
Chandos have correctly tracked the ‘Calm Sea’ and ‘Prosperous Voyage’ sections separately, reflecting the fact that the first is much more than a slow introduction to the second. The composer was inspired by two related Goethe poems, and the structure of the work is true to that conception. The fact that Mendelssohn was not yet twenty when he completed this fine work is, frankly, astonishing.
The playing of the CBSO is of the highest quality, and the perfectly balanced and blended sound of the wind sections is something very special. It is all so well rendered by the engineers; they have successfully preserved the feeling of spaciousness that Birmingham’s Town Hall acoustic provides. I’m so glad they have used the splendid Victorian building; this music simply sounds so much more at home than it would do in the admittedly top-class acoustic of Symphony Hall.
All of which applies to Symphony no.2 – perhaps even more so because of the extra element of the voices, solos and chorus. Edward Gardner is an ideal interpreter of this music, and one can sense how much he and his musicians love it. He selects speeds which feel perfectly natural, but which are never overly conservative. He sometimes allows the music to surge forward excitingly into really fast tempi; here he is fortunate in having an alert and very youthful sounding choir in the CBSO Chorus. They sing with palpable enthusiasm linked with disciplined ensemble; the only number in which they are slightly less impressive is the first appearance of the chorale ‘Nun danket alle Gott’ (which we know in this country as ‘Now thank we all our God’, though the words here are Let all men praise the Lord’.) This is the only section that is well and truly unaccompanied, always a potential problem for large choirs. Their corporate tone at the beginning is a little tired — too many re-takes perhaps? — but they soon recover, and give a rousing account of the final chorus, ‘All that has life and breath, sing to the Lord’.
Fine though the chorus is, it is the three soloists who set the seal on
this performance for me. The two sopranos are sisters, from the prodigious
Bevan clan. Sophie is simply magnificent
in her music. She does something so radiantly beautiful in her solo ‘The
night is departing’ (track 13), that I cannot possibly describe –
you need to hear it and believe. Her sister Mary joins her for just the one number, but is clearly in the same class – what
a family. Happily, the young tenor Benjamin Hulett is another star; his voice is perfect for Mendelssohn’s music, for he is not of the ‘strangulated’ school of English tenors – the voice is fresh and open, but also has an expressive quality which took me back to the great days of tenors such as Heddle Nash or, more recently, Ian Partridge. A real find for me, not having heard him previously.
The whole disc is a rare pleasure; spoil yourself.