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Mendelssohn in Birmingham on Chandos

Mendelssohn in Birmingham 1

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A regular visitor to England, Mendelssohn charmed virtually everyone he met (from Queen Victoria and Prince Albert downwards) with his multiple skills as composer, conductor, pianist and organist. He was a deft amateur artist too: one of his sketches, made during the first of several visits to Birmingham in 1840, is shown on this release’s booklet cover, complete with the city’s then brand-new Town Hall where Mendelssohn played and conducted – and where these recordings, the first of a planned series, were made in October last year.

Performing Mendelssohn’s music convincingly is about squaring circles. Its fleet-footed stylishness needs a light touch, so that the hefty firepower of a modern orchestra has to be under firm control; yet if phrasing isn’t crisp and clear, or Mendelssohn’s dramatic streak is short-changed, the result can sound precious.

Edward Gardner’s conducting is unerringly on the music’s wavelength. The evergreen ‘Italian’ Symphony sparkles, with an ultra-quick tempo for the saltarello dance finale, as Mendelssohn’s Presto indication implies. The much less familiar ‘Reformation’, with its deployment of a Lutheran chorale tune, has a reputation for Germanic tedium that’s happily subverted here, by an interpretation of engaging freshness. In the atmospheric seascapes of overture The Hebrides, the intensity of music-making is rather lower, but there are some beautiful moments nonetheless. And Chandos’s recorded sound combines warm spaciousness with a feast of colourful detail.