Notes and Editorial Reviews
This is a hybrid Super Audio CD playable on both regular and Super Audio CD players.
Since this is labeled Volume 1 in what is projected to be a series of releases titled Mendelssohn in Birmingham , it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the name of the project refers to performances of Mendelssohn’s works by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in Birmingham, not to works that Mendelssohn may have composed while in Birmingham, or that have some particular association with that city. In fact, out of 10 visits the composer made to England between 1829 and 1847, his only work specifically linked to Birmingham is his oratorio Read more , which was premiered there in 1846 at the Triennial Music Festival in an English translation of the text by William Bartholomew. Nonetheless, Mendelssohn was beloved of the Brits and may have been more popular in England throughout much of the 19th century than he was in his native Germany.
It was Mendelssohn’s first visit to the British Isles in 1829 that gave rise to two of the works on this disc, the “Scottish” Symphony (No. 3) and The Hebrides Overture , aka Fingal’s Cave . After captivating London audiences with a number of appearances, the composer embarked on a walking tour of Scotland with his friend Karl Klingemann, author of the original German text to Elijah ; and it’s said that the Symphony was inspired by Mendelssohn’s visit to the ruins of a chapel at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh. The work was not completed, though, until 1842.
Inspiration for The Hebrides Overture came during the same Scottish adventure, when Mendelssohn set sail for Staffa, an island in the Hebrides archipelago off the west coast of Scotland. I suppose it’s not really funny, but there does seem to be a bit of cognitive dissonance between the composer’s idealization of the sea in all its grandeur, gripping power, and potential peril on the one hand, and on the other, his violent bout of mal de mer during the crossing, on which Klingemann later reported, “Unfortunately, Mendelssohn was seasick throughout the day. My travelling companion is on better terms with the sea as a composer than as an individual with a stomach.” Somewhere I recall reading, though I can’t remember where, that by the time they reached the island, Mendelssohn was so green around the gills that he expressed the desire to remain behind and die there rather than face the return trip.
Completed in 1830, the “Reformation” Symphony received the number 5 when it was published posthumously in 1868, but chronologically it’s second in order of the composer’s symphonies. Mendelssohn began work on the score with the intent of it being performed in Berlin at the festivities celebrating the tercentennial anniversary of the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession in 1530, a document central to the Lutheran church. But a series of setbacks delayed completion of the work until just a month before the scheduled event, and the committee in charge of the festival rejected Mendelssohn’s submission of the Symphony for performance. An underlying motive of anti-Semitism has been suggested as playing a role in the rejection.
On this brand new, generously filled Chandos SACD are surely three of Mendelssohn’s most popular purely orchestral works, and that, as always, means there are lots of competing versions. No other single disc that I’m aware of, though, and certainly not on an SACD, offers all three of these works together. That, of course, wouldn’t necessarily be a selling point if the performances weren’t competitive, but I’m happy to report they are, and then some.
However one feels about Simon Rattle’s conducting from an interpretive point of view, it can’t be denied that his technical and managerial skills were put to good use during his tenure at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra from 1980 to 1998, for he put the orchestra on the map as a world-class ensemble, a reputation it has continued to enjoy under Rattle’s successors, Sakari Oramo and now Andris Nelsons. Edward Gardner, who takes the podium for this Mendelssohn recording, was appointed the orchestra’s principal guest conductor, effective as of 2011, overlapping his stint as music director of the English National Opera.
The “Italian” Symphony leaps off the page in Gardner’s performance with a buoyant spring in its step, and maintains the music’s youthful energy and high spirits throughout the first movement (with repeat). It’s the last movement, though, the Saltarello, and its tricky triplet figure with a rest in the middle of it that demands extremely controlled articulation. Until now, I haven’t heard it done better, or as well, as John Eliot Gardiner did it with the Vienna Philharmonic on a 1997 Deutsche Grammophon recording. But not only does Gardner and the CBSO match Gardiner and the VPO in precision of articulation, they shave five seconds off the latters’ speed—5: 24 vs. 5:29. Considering how frequently Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony has been famously recorded—Toscanini, Charles Munch, and Bernstein come to mind—it must have been somewhat daunting for Gardner to join the fray, but his performance is an impressive one that can stand with the best.
The sea rolls and heaves, as it should, in The Hebrides Overture , and the water spouts spray their foam, as the storm gathers strength in the well-portrayed fugal section. I’m not sure what, if anything, any conductor or orchestra could do to improve on this performance; it’s beautifully played and perfectly timed from beginning to end.
The CBSO’s brass players have a real opportunity to show what they’re made of in the introduction to the “Reformation” Symphony, and they don’t disappoint. The section is strong, superbly well balanced and blended, and delivers the opening strains with an imposing sense of gravitas. Beyond that, I hope you’ll forgive me if I say I have a hard time working up much enthusiasm for this Symphony, regardless of who performs it. Mendelssohn seems to have been incapable of writing anything that wasn’t a marvel of technical craftsmanship, but not everything he composed is a work of sheer inspired genius; and in my opinion, there’s more of the former in this score than the latter. Nonetheless, Gardner and the CBSO make one of the better cases for it in recent memory. The Andante is played with a special incandescent expressivity.
The full-spectrum Chandos SACD is resplendent, with an especially deep, firm bass. Strongly recommended.