Monday, 28 April 2014

Mendelssohn in Birmingham Volume 1

My first consideration when reviewing this CD was the title –‘Mendelssohn in Birmingham’. Clearly the CBSO is a locally-based orchestra, so that much is understood. As far as I was aware, none of these present works were written for, or first performed in, that great city. The composer first visited Birmingham in 1837 shortly after his marriage to Cécile. Missing the company of his new wife, he is famously noted for having suggested that he ‘let Birmingham go hang.’  That years’ Music Festival was a huge success and featured St. Paul and the Second Piano Concerto.  Three years later, Mendelssohn had returned to the city, this time by train on the newly-opened line from London. The works performed included his First Piano Concerto and ‘Lobgesang’.  In 1846 he triumphed with the premiere of Elijah.  The following year saw a repeat of that work, this time in its revised version. A few months later the composer was dead.
The City of Birmingham Orchestra with their principal guest conductor Edward Gardner, have begun a series of CDs dedicated to the Symphonies of Mendelssohn. I understand that No.1 & 3 are to be released in the near future. There is also a concert tie-in to the CDs at the Birmingham Town Hall.

Little need be said about the history and content of these three well-known works. However a few notes will remind the listener of their place in Mendelssohn’s canon. I have always struggled with the ‘Reformation’ Symphony. I guess that the seemingly ephemeral nature of the work has put me off: I find it hard to get worked up about the celebration of a theological tract, no matter how important in the history of Europe.  I am indifferent to philosophical speculation about Catholic polyphony being ‘superseded’ by Lutheran harmony: I love both.  So of all the Mendelssohn Symphonies I have typically avoided this one.
The work was published posthumously as Op.107, although it was written in 1829/30 when the composer was only twenty-one years old. It was designed to commemorate the tercentenary of the drafting of the Augsburg Protestant Confession which had occurred on 25 June 1530.  The substance of the Symphony does seem to suggest a certain ‘programmatic’ content reflecting the struggle between the Catholics and the Lutherans. This is especially so in the opening and closing movement where the composer makes use of the Dresden Amen in the opening pages and quotes the great hymn ‘Ein feste Burg’ in the finale.  Yet the middle two movements seem to present something of a problem. There is nothing here that is particularly challenging from a theological perspective. In fact, the second is a gay scherzo that exudes sunshine and happiness in similar vein to the ‘Italian’ Symphony. The third movement is really a romance or, as Philip Radcliffe has described it a ‘song without words’. This is more desire of the heart than deep dogmatic speculation.
I recommend listening to this work by divorcing its raison d’être from one’s mind. I believe that this makes it a satisfying symphony that balances a degree of ‘struggle’ with beautiful moments of starry-eyed reflection. It is a work that has gone up in my estimation since reviewing this disc.
The ‘Italian’ Symphony in A major, Op.90 was inspired by the composer’s visit to Italy in 1831. It was begun in 1832 and completed the following year. In the United Kingdom it is probably the most performed of the composer’s symphonies, alongside the ‘Scottish’. There is little that is challenging in this happy evocation of the Italian sunshine, the arts, the people and way of life. Mendelssohn did struggle to complete it: he wrote that he had ‘the bitterest moments I have ever endured or could have imagined’ whilst writing this work. The Italian Symphony has four movements, the first characterised by sheer exuberance and tuneful gaiety. The second, an ‘andante con moto,’ has been nicknamed the ‘Pilgrim’s March’. The third is a little more reserved and is signed ‘con moto moderato’. The best-known movement is the concluding ‘saltarello’ which is played at tremendous speed.
At present there are nearly 150 versions of this work in the Arkiv catalogue, with virtually every conductor and orchestra having had a go at it.

‘Fingal’s Cave’, or to give it its proper title the ‘Hebridean Overture’ is probably one of the best-known works in the entire orchestral repertoire. The Overture was conceived shortly after visiting the Hebrides with his friend Klingemann in 1829. Klingemann wrote that ‘We were put out in boats and lifted by the hissing sea up a pillar of stumps to the famous Fingal’s Cave. A greener roar of waves never rushed into a stranger cavern – its many pillars making it look like the inside of an immense organ, black and resounding, absolutely without purpose, and utterly isolated, the wide grey sea within and without.’ (Fiske, Scotland in Music, 1983) The visit created an ‘exceptional impression’ on the composer and he made a sketch of the opening ten bars virtually there and then.  He was once asked to describe his visit to the Hebrides and he replied that it cannot be told in words, only played in music. He self-deprecatingly suggested that the middle section of the work was bad, ‘it smells more of counterpoint than of waves, seagulls and salt fish’.
The work was completed in 1832 and was performed at London in 1833 at Covent Garden by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Thomas Atwood.  Like the ‘Italian’ Symphony there are more than a hundred recordings currently available.

The liner notes by Bayan Northcott and Gerald Larner are fascinating and demand study. The CD looks and feels good: especially the cover which features a pen and ink sketch of Birmingham made by the composer.
It is impossible to compare recordings of these works when there are literally hundreds of versions currently available. So I use my all-purpose criteria for judging any piece of music. Did it move me? The answer is a resounding ‘Yes!’  The playing is enthusiastic and balances the intimacy and drama of much of this music. Gardner is sympathetic to the nuances of ‘Fingal’s Cave’ and the sun-drenched pages of the ‘Italian’ Symphony: he has given me a version of the ‘Reformation’ Symphony that I can do business with.
I look forward to reviewing the second volume in this series with my favourite Mendelssohn symphony, the ‘Scottish’.

Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
The Hebrides, Op.26 (1830/32)
Symphony No.5 Op.107 ‘Reformation’ (1829-30)
Symphony No.4 Op.90 ‘Italian’ (1831-33)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner CHANDOS CHSA5132 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

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