Mendelssohn in Birmingham, Vol. 2

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COMPOSERS: Mendelssohn
LABELS: Chandos
ALBUM TITLE: Mendelssohn in Birmingham, Vol. 2
WORKS: Symphonies Nos 1 & 3; Ruy Blas Overture
PERFORMER: City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner

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Edward Gardner conducts these pieces with a highly satisfying blend of freedom and discipline. In some of Mendelssohn’s more lyrical moments – notably the beautiful opening tune of the third movement of the Scottish Symphony – you need a metronome to judge his rhythmic flexibility, so naturally does he apply it. Here it’s also set in contrast to an absolutely precise reading of the martial dotted figures that follow. I had cause to query a few tempos in the first set of this series, but on this disc every speed is finely judged. I particularly like the way Gardner interprets the Maestoso of the Scottish Symphony’s final section, not through a stodgy tempo, which can make this passage sound trite, but by giving the horns their head.

In Symphony No. 1 Mendelssohn was rather parsimonious with dynamic markings, but again all of Gardner’s interventions on this front are entirely in keeping with the score, notably the ones in the pizzicato string passages. The fugal moments are delivered with clarity and panache – Berlioz might grumble about Mendelssohn’s addiction to such ancient conceits, but there’s no faulting the technique – and throughout the disc the strings articulate with splendid vigour.

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In the dramatic overture Ruy Blas, Gardner rightly brings in the Allegro material after the brass fanfares with no perceptible pause, ratcheting up the tension. These fine performances were recorded in Birmingham Town Hall, scene of a number of the composer’s triumphs, not least St Paul and Elijah. Roger Nichols