CBSO/Gardner – review

Town Hall, Birmingham
Birmingham began its cycle of Mendelssohn symphonies on fine form with the Fourth and Fifth under Edward Gardner

Mendelssohn visited Britain 10 times over almost 20 years, playing and conducting a wide range of his own music. Birmingham seems to have taken particular pride in his visits, especially to its Triennial festival, where the Second Piano Concerto and the oratorio Elijah were performed for the first time (in 1837 and 1846 respectively). It's a connection that the city has celebrated ever since, and now the City of Birmingham Symphony has begun a cycle of the Mendelssohn symphonies under its chief guest conductor, Edward Gardner; there are two concerts at the Town Hall this month, with the third, including the rarely heard choral Second Symphony, the Hymn of Praise, at Symphony Hall in the new year.

The opening programme paired the Fourth and Fifth symphonies. Gardner's civilised account of the Fourth, the Italian, was a fine example of modern-orchestra Mendelssohn playing: deft and light-textured, with crisp articulation from the strings and woodwind that was well defined but never over-highlighted. But the Fifth, the Reformation, seemed much more interesting. It's an earlier work, despite the numbering, composed in 1830 to mark the tercentenary of the founding of the Lutheran church, with beefed up scoring, a first movement punctuated by appearances of the Dresden Amen as otherworldly as any in Wagner's Parsifal, and a finale based on a Bach chorale, the strangness of which Gardner made no attempt to disguise.

Mendelssohn's E minor Violin Concerto came between the two symphonies. The soloist was to have been Veronika Eberle, who fell ill; Baiba Skride, a Birmingham favourite, flew in to replace her at less than 24 hours' notice. It was a typical Skride performance: passionate and risk-taking, and giving an unsuspected fierceness to the work's first movement, a no-nonsense briskness to the Andante and edge-of-the-seat brilliance to the finale.

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Contributor

Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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