Edward Gardner / City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Mendelssohn in Birmingham, Vol. 1

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Felix Mendelssohn did visit the city of Birmingham, England, and conduct there, and the sketch on the cover of this Chandos release is by the composer himself. This album, in fact, was recorded in the Birmingham Town Hall, the building at the center of the sketch. The concept doesn't go farther than that, however; the big Mendelssohn pieces recorded here were not composed in Birmingham. Moreover, the Town Hall is not an especially luxurious sound environment. Is there enough in the performances of these well-worn classics to stand out from the large crowd of other recordings? The results are mixed. Conductor Edward Gardner, often associated with operatic repertory, leads the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in a fine, atmospheric Hebrides Overture, Op. 26. In the Symphony No. 4 in A major, Op. 90 ("Italian"), and Symphony No. 5, Op. 107 ("Reformation"), he seems intent on giving the music quickness and lightness, stripping it of ponderous Victorian majesty. In parts it works, and the orchestra follows Gardner step for step. But the finale of the "Italian" is a tepid tarantella indeed, and the "Reformation" symphony with its chorale-tune quotations, an interesting document in the history of Mendelssohn's relationship to Lutheranism, simply does not engage with the subject matter. This is the kind of recording that suggests new directions but leaves room for future execution.

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