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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Overture St. Paul Op. 36 [6:32]
The Fair Melusine Overture, Op. 32 [10:24]
Trumpet - Overture Op. 101 [8:38]
Hebrides Overture, Op. 26 [9:50]
Athalia Overture, Op. 74 [8:00]
A Midsummer Night's Dream Overture, Op. 21 [11:25]
Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, Op. 27 [11:48]
Ruy Blas Overture, Op. 95 [7:22]
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner
rec. 2013-18, Town Hall, Birmingham, UK
Mendelssohn in Birmingham - Volume 5

My usual route to Mendelssohn’s overtures is the now classic recording from the London Symphony Orchestra under Claudio Abbado (423 104-2), but as Bayan Northcott explains in his wonderful notes to this new Chandos recording, “The overtures assembled on this recording are by no means the sum of the contribution by Felix Mendelssohn to the genre.” He goes on to point out that some overtures, such as that for Die erste Walpurgisnacht and Elijah are not included here because they cannot be separated from the choral contribution of the work, whereas others, such as the Overture for Wind Band Op. 24 (included on the Abbado disc) was originally designated as a Notturno, and that there is also a series of short overtures from his Singspiele. However, he fails to mention the overture to the characterful two-Act opera Die Hochzeit des Camacho, which, although Mendelssohn composed when he was just sixteen, can hardly be classed as a Singspiel because at nearly two hours it does not fit the mould of his short, one-Act works. Despite Mendelssohn’s tender age, it still bears witness to what was to come. So, no Ouvertüre für Harmoniemusic, which features prominently on the Abbado disc; instead, we are treated to the overtures from Paulus and Athalie, making an unusual and welcome appearance here.

This is the fifth and final instalment of Gardner’s Mendelssohn cycle with the CBSO; anyone who has been collecting the series will soon realise that four of the main overtures here previously appeared in the preceding four volumes. I only have one other in the set, a fine recording of the Symphony No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 52 'Lobgesang' (CHSA 5151) but it is still good to have them brought together on a single disc especially when played as well as they are here, the rare overtures being a real boon.

Opening with the overture to St. Paul with its echoes of the Lutheran chorale “Wachet auf”, this is a fine statement of intent, as the work as a whole has a real nobility; if pushed, I prefer it to the more popular Elijah. Gardner brings out the drama of Die schöne Melusine more than Abbado in his DG recording. The Trumpet – Overture comes over with a flourish, whilst the overture to Athalia, something I only know through Christoph Spering’s recording of the complete incidental music to Jean Racine’s play (Capriccio 49 581), is given real gravitas here, its tension and drama being reinforced through Gardner’s slower tempo. This is unusual, as he generally chooses marginally quicker tempos in all of the overtures he shares with the Abbado recording.

Of the big four, I particularly enjoyed the recording of Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt; Gardner and the CBSO offer a really nuanced view and the sonorities of the music break through. It is also nice to have it differently tracked for the Calm Sea and the Prosperous Voyage sections. That perennial favourite, the Hebrides Overture is, as even Mendelssohn’s main detractor, Richard Wagner, put it, a masterpiece, and here receives a very fine recording. The bold use of the period sounding timpani in the overture to Ein Sommernachtstraum is quite effective. According to Bayan Northcott’s notes, Mendelssohn immensely disliked the play Ruy Blas, so its music does not really reflect the plot and the happy, almost valedictory, conclusion is at odds with it. It forms a fine conclusion to this disc, and the series as a whole; it is just a pity that Gardner and the CBSO are not going on to explore further Mendelssohn’s music.

The playing throughout this disc is exemplary. I like Gardner’s choice of slightly faster tempos as it gives a real sense of drive and momentum throughout. The CBSO is on wonderful form, with Gardner bringing out the very best from the orchestra. The recorded sound on the hybrid SACD is up to Chandos’ usual high standard and, as mentioned above, the booklet notes are excellent; who else knew that Mendelssohn hated the text of Roy Blas? I didn’t. So, an excellent disc of Mendelssohn’s overtures, to which I will often return.

Stuart Sillitoe 

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