Uplifting Mendelssohn from Gardner and the CBSO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mendelssohn:  Baiba Skrida (violin), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner (conductor), Town Hall, Birmingham, 19.10.2013. (RD)

Mendelssohn:Symphony No. 4 (Italian)
Violin Concerto in D minor
Symphony No. 5 (Reformation)

One associates Edward Gardner both with contemporary and romantic repertoire at the London Coliseum, where this Mark Elder protégé and natural successor now presides so successfully, and with the miraculous Lutoslawski and Szymanowski he has recorded for Chandos.

So it was quite a surprise to meet him in Mendelssohn, whose cycle of five symphonies Gardner has just launched at Birmingham Town Hall with the CBSO, as its Principal Guest Conductor, and which will also find its way onto Chandos.

Gardner, who led off with the Fourth (Italian) and Fifth (Reformation) symphonies, wrapped around the E minor Violin Concerto sporting an excitedly-received late soloist, Andris Nelsons’ fellow-Latvian Baiba Skride, first alighted on Mendelssohn singing ‘Hear my Prayer’ or perhaps ‘The night is departing’ with Gloucester Cathedral Choir under the sympathetic John Sanders, the tenth anniversary of whose death falls in December.

One of the golden rules for Kapellmeister-conductors is ‘let them play’. And in some respects that is what Gardner lets his professional charges do. He does not boss, or dominate, or intrude: he makes possible, anticipates, enables. And the results are uplifting.

The CBSO violins were transformed by Sakari Oramo into a revelation: something much more sophisticated – and entrancing – than under Rattle or perhaps even Nelsons. A weak link? Their playing, two hiccups of intonation apart, is as good as ever, but the sound is neither as alluring nor as interesting.

Compare, on this occasion at least, the CBSO cellos with Eduardo Vassallo and Richard Jenkinson leading – a sound rich in warm and varied timbres, all desks gorgeous, sensitive and gorgeous, instinctively responsive. Witness their subtly expressive second Allegro of Mendelsssohn’s  Fifth, for instance.

Each of Gardner’s pacings served this cause well. The Italian’s opening had not just vernal bounce but rare restraint, authority. The Town Hall’s acoustic seems a little clipped; perhaps that too doesn’t help the upper strings. The Andante con moto with its lovely legato over light-stepped double basses (like bowed pizzicato) enchanted; it is a march that has Harold in Italy written all over it,  except that the Berlioz’s actually followed some two years later (in 1834).

The Reformation’s weighty opening movement reminds us of Mendelssohn’s mentors – just as Beethoven in the Italian, here Weber (Euryanthe, especially Lysiart’s double aria) and a symbiosis with his friend Schumann. Gardner has a wonderful way of effecting quite tricky link passages with minimal fuss. At four points in both Fourth and Fifth symphonies, they just happened. He anticipates – rehearsal has proved its worth – and they just do it. All bodes well for the recording.

The brass delivered with restraint, but not without the Reformation suggesting Lohengrin on the way (not just in their affecting Dresden Amen). The extended flute solo, some wonderfully articulated clarinet work, and the unexpected weight of Margaret Cookhorn’s admirable contra bassoon produced an exciting kaleidoscope of colour.

Add in the beauty and elegance of Skride and Gardner exploring the Violin Concerto, in which the slow passages of the first movement outshone even the eloquence of the Andante – sensationally linked by Greta Tuls’ serene, rather than forlorn, bassoon, and you can sense an evening of majesty, suspense and yes, even holiness. I felt lucky to be there.


Roderic Dunnett