MENDELSSOHN Symphonies Nos 4 & 5
Mendelssohn performed in Birmingham several times during the 1830s and ’40s – Elijah was composed for the Birmingham Festival – and Edward Gardner’s Birmingham readings of these purely orchestral works are admirably vital, the Italian setting off at a healthy lick (the exposition’s return is very sensitively handled), the middle movements malleable and transparent. The Reformation is a tougher nut to crack, principally because it involves one or two tricky transitions. The slow opening features a warmly drawn bass-line (at around the minute mark), the ensuing Allegro truly con fuoco. I would have liked a little more repose for the scherzo, a softer-grained Allegro vivace with more prominence given to those delightfully burbling flutes towards the end of the movement. Beyond Ein’ feste Burg, proudly announced by the flute then taken up by winds and brass, Mendelssohn launches an Allegro vivace then kicks into a vigorous Allegro maestoso (tr 5, 1'41"). Gardner’s option here, a fairly popular one, is to take the vivace rather quickly and push the tempo further for the maestoso. Personally, I prefer Kurt Masur’s solution as recorded with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in 1972 (Eurodisc/RCA, 6/74 – nla), where the vivace is held in check and the maestoso jumps in at double the tempo, making for a seamless transition. But Gardner’s approach is entirely logical, given Mendelssohn’s markings.
The Hebrides is very dramatically played, with a subtle easing of the pulse for the lyrical cello-led second subject and proper focus given to the forte wind and brass interjections later on (often marked con forza), which makes them sound more than ever like cries from a rugged shoreline aviary. Again I have a treasured ‘oldie’ up my sleeve, George Szell in Cleveland, (1962; Sony, 5/64, 3/77), where every bar is beautifully integrated and superbly played, although Szell’s take on Staffa is rather less elemental than Gardner’s. All in all a fine trio of performances, individual for sure, and an encouraging start to what I hope will be an extended series.