A Praiseworthy Mendelssohn Second from Gardner and CBSO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mendelssohn Sophie Bevan (soprano), Mary Bevan (soprano), Benjamin Hulett (tenor), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, CBSO Chorus and CBSO Youth Chorus/Edward Gardner (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham Thursday 13.2 2014.

Overture: Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage Op. 17
Two Motets Op. 39 nos. 1 & 3,
Symphony No. 2 ‘Hymn of Praise’ Op. 52.


The success last autumn of Edward Gardner’s Mendelssohn series with the CBSO, of which he is Principal Guest Conductor (see reviews:  Uplifting Mendelssohn  and Mendelsson second piano concerto ) became all too apparent from the official launch by Chandos this month of CHSA 5132, a CD which brings together Gardner’s striking readings of Mendelssohn’s Fourth (Italian) and particularly the Fifth Symphony (Reformation) and the composer’s elemental Hebrides Overture.

Now Gardner has polished off the present series by conducting the orchestra and Simon Halsey’s expertly drilled choir, here prepared for a performance of power and conviction by the CBSO’s Assistant Chorus Master, Julian Wilkins, in Mendelssohn’s mighty Second Symphony, Lobgesang: Hymn of Praise (or as the composer preferred it Song of Praise).

It inevitably the great vocal and choral finale, with its famous dramatic exchange with the Watchman and the landmark Benedicite ‘All that has life and breath, sing to the Lord’, which opens and ends the work in J. Alfred Novello’s still widely used translation, for which Symphony 2 is best loved and remembered. But this concert brought other rewards.

The first was Edward Gardner’s distinctively restrained way of conducting. He knows these players well by now, and has nurtured them to his own approach, very distinct from that of Music Director Andris Nelsons and indeed before him, Rattle. Gardner brings a calm more akin to the laid back, calmly hardworking Sakari Oramo: his undemonstrative manner shows by its clearly successful, finessed results that Gardner can communicate and indeed motivate without displays of unnecessary fervour. He can do bravado (as here) where it is required, but he never goes in for histrionics, turning the podium into a bear garden of superfluous display.

Secondly there was the preface, Mendelsssohn’s Overture Calm Sea and a Prosperous Voyage, the work that inspired Elgar, but more importantly whose forerunner was Beethoven’s electrifying 1815 cantata of the same name, published at the time of his last piano sonatas. The eeriness of Mendelssohn’s opening (low flutes, clarinet solo) harks straight back to another of his idols, Weber, and the suspended effect (‘an impression of eerie motionlessness’) Gardner’s players, the strings especially, who brought it a quasi-Mahlerian intensity, achieved was a marvel. More flutes sounded like birds coasting above the expansive waters; the way the confident allegro evaporated to pattering cellos alone was superb; and the final trumpets, hammering out the (perhaps just too repetitive) four-note motif on which all hinges, sounded as if they were artfully playing a compacted inversion of the symphony’s  signal melody to follow.

There are extraordinary things in the three-movement instrumental opening to the symphony: so interesting one might almost think, had the work remained unfinished, it might still have merited attention like Schubert’s 8th, and still had its distinctive Lutheran hue. Gardner kept it all measured; bits that might have run away higgledy-piggledy never did so. The Allegretto ‘un poco agitato’, an all but Tchaikovskian waltz, should sound wonderful on disc; it did here, rendered all the more impressive in that Gardner periodically ceased to beat at all, teasingly letting his players play. The ensuing adagio was all the more impressive for managing to infiltrate the CBSO’s sensitive contrabassoon player, Margaret Cookhorn, into it without scarcely being heard at all.

Congenial though two significant solos from soprano Sophie Bevan were, I found her timbre in the finale edgy, perhaps not her best, compared with her finer-honed sister Mary Bevan (who sang the lower line of the duet ‘I waited for the Lord’, where they matched each other to perfection, with fine horn obbligato). The most satisfying soloist – standing in for the originally designated Robert Murray – was tenor Benjamin Hulett, always endowed with a particularly beautiful sound, but now with a meaningful dramatic edge honed by four years with the Hamburg Opera. Hulett’s virtual dramatic scena, ‘The sorrows of death’, was in its way a triumph; but then so was his nobly delivered preceding recitative; and his start, with Gardner, to ‘My song shall always’ – perilous at the best of times – was a case of perfect mutual osmosis.

The CBSO chorus vociferously witnessed the night departing (surely a Victorian and Edwardian hit chorus, even though the – then – City of Birmingham Orchestra perplexingly never assayed it in full till the Second World War); but the choral plum was the late extended hymn Nun Danket (here ‘Let all men praise the Lord’), sung a cappella with pleasing finesse and a wonderful feel for dynamics instilled by a batonless Gardner – an assured choral director not least. Additional credit to Julian Wilkins’s CBSO Youth Chorus, who with their trainer at the organ served up two rare Mendelssohn Latin motets, in which their part singing was confident, their distinctive sound at the start and end firm and nicely forthright, and whose soloists – one semichoral quartet, and – above all a-  tantalising duet in ‘Tulerunt Dominum’, effortlessly filling the huge hall, were all but fabulous.

Roderic Dunnett