Having attended the corresponding 'Mendelssohn in Birmingham' concert, I was eagerly awaiting this release by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under their Principal Guest Conductor (and possibly next Music Director, according to me and others), Edward Gardner.
It is an exciting prospect for a number of reasons. One of which is the fact that the CBSO, arguably, hasn't been recorded in its own right for a major record label for quite a number of years now. It certainly hasn't been recorded by Chandos for a long time. And so what a treat to hear them recorded with such splendid engineering! However, the recorded sound turns out to be both a blessing and a curse.
Now, the field of Mendelssohn symphony cycles is not a desperately crowded one (Abbado's 1980s LSO set was my favourite for a long while) and the first thing to say is that few people will be disappointed by these energetic and zesty performances of the 4th and 5th symphonies (coupled with the Hebrides overture). The 'Italian', in particular, is characterised by a welcome drive. The inner movements move forward, as they should, with tasteful shaping of phrases just as I remember from the live performances that accompanied these studio recordings. This 'Italian' is superb.
The 'Reformation' is actually the second of the full orchestral symphonies that Mendelssohn composed - a fact that aids the listener's understanding of the piece as well as helping explain why it doesn't quite hang together as well as the composer's later works, though its more experimental features are deliciously inventive. In view of this, the work really needs a good advocate, as Gardner proves to be here. The finale, with its working out of a hymnal theme, is particularly thrilling as Gardner injects fresh energy into each new section. My own taste is for a less swift tempo in the Scherzo but that would be my only complaint from an interpretative point of view. This movement really is one of Mendelssohn's most delightful and louche, even, in the Trio section.
The overture is also thrillingly executed though I doubt the composer himself would approve of the less than subtle tempo changes liberally applied where none are marked in the score, but that is neither here nor there. This performance will appeal to most, I daresay.
What of the orchestral, and recorded, sound? The disc had me turning to its main competition in this field, Andrew Litton's cycle with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, curiously enough whose music directorship is to be taken on by Gardner in 2015. Though there is little difference in the interpretations, the difference in orchestral and recorded sound is significant. Firstly, the renowned Chandos reverb ensures that the Birmingham Town Hall acoustic is as anonymous as any of their other recording venues, though doubtless the acoustic did not hinder the sound terribly, accommodating and spacious as it is. Prominence is given to the martial trumpets, horns and timpani as well as the strings, meaning that the 'middle range' of woodwind is difficult to make out in the tutti sections. This is a shame, as Mendelssohn's orchestration really is quite delightful in these works. You'd be hard pressed to identify the orchestra, too, aside perhaps from Peter Hill's characteristically enthusiastic and thrilling timpani flourishes! I hope it's not too cruel to say that the sound of the orchestra conforms to the brilliant but anonymous standards of the label's flagship Royal Scottish National Orchestra of the 1980s and 90s.
The Bergen Philharmonic have the benefit of a rather more characterful wind section (those tangy bassoons, in particular!), which are ever-present in the recorded blend, and antiphonal violins. I can't emphasise the importance of the latter in this music enough. Now, Mr Litton is not one to arrange them as such regularly but he must have realised that for his Mendelssohn recordings to be competitive nowadays they'd need this arrangement to aid contrapuntal and fugal clarity. Curiously, Mr Gardner used to arrange his violins thus earlier in his career. I do hope that he does not feel afraid to institute this with the orchestras he works with now and in the future. Finally, the BIS sound is a little flatter and drier, which does seem to suit the music a little better than Chandos's resonance but this will be a matter of personal taste.
I suspect that this series will represent an important addition to the Mendelssohn discography and it is thrilling enough on its own terms, so I would not hesitate to recommend it. However, Litton's cycle remains the modern benchmark for me and I'd urge you to have both in your collections.