Mendelssohn Look-Alike Gives Crisp Account of his Second Piano Concerto

25/10/2013

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mendelssohn: Martin Helmchen (piano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner (conductor), Town Hall, Birmingham, 24.10.2013  (CM)

Symphony No 1 in B minor
Piano Concerto No 2
Symphony No 3 (Scottish)

 Thursday afternoon’s latest instalment in Edward Gardner’s complete Mendelssohn symphony cycle with the CBSO brought an extra frisson with a performance of the Piano Concerto no.2 in D minor which the composer himself premiered in this very Town Hall in 1837.

The soloist now was Martin Helmchen, whether by accident or design looking very much like Mendelssohn in the full bloom of his youth, and delivering a crisp, well-proportioned reading. Chording was perfectly balanced, passage-work was fleet and dextrous, and bravura and panache abounded in the chattering Bee’s Wedding-style finale. Gardner drew from the CBSO a collaboration now punchy, now easily lilting, qualities firmly in evidence in the symphonies which surrounded this performance.

Mendelssohn’s Symphony no.1 in C minor, highly-strung and so brilliantly crafted, revealed moments of Weber as much as Beethoven. Gardner shaped a tremendously dramatic opening, strings subsequently gracious in the midst of all their zinging.

The woodwind hymnody of the andante was delicious, the scherzo had as a highlight Peter Hill’s timpani-work, both sensitive and telling, and the finale’s precocious fugues were tactfully delivered.

Finally came the Symphony no.3, the Scottish, building in drama from its brooding opening (what exemplary unanimity from the violins in their unison recitative!), and with oases of sweetness.

Mendelssohn’s somewhat eccentric horn-writing, gauchely clattering at times, roaringly noble elsewhere, was capably encompassed by the CBSO’s expert section; lamenting bassoons told their tale, and the simplicity of utterance which lies behind this symphony emerged as unaffected in its own terms; though when we reach the “Galloping Major” (no-one has ever pointed out that thematic link) peroration, we cannot help but think of the exactly similar moment in Mahler’s First Symphony.

Christopher Morley

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