Mendelssohn developed quite a soft spot for Birmingham, even producing a sketched portrait of the city. At the centre of this portrait stands Joseph Hansom's splendid neoclassical Town Hall where Mendelssohn conducted several of his own works, most famously the première of his great oratorio, Elijah.

Baiba Skride © Marco Borggreve
Baiba Skride
© Marco Borggreve

The Town Hall was therefore an appropriate venue for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra to begin their Mendelssohn cycle under the baton of Principal Guest Conductor, Edward Gardner. The orchestra launched into the opening of the ‘Italian’ symphony with a satisfying pizzicato ‘thunk’ in the strings, a section that sounded particularly luxurious in the Town Hall acoustic. Gardner’s tempo was just right: spacious but without sacrifice of the requisite energy, very much reminiscent of Bernard Haitink’s way with tempi.

The balance in the hall was such that Mendelssohn’s scoring was always pleasingly transparent. As I discovered in Jessica Duchen’s illuminating pre-concert talk, composer Peter Maxwell Davies is a great admirer of the claritas of Mendelssohn’s music, the inner glow from within the music. This was evident in the radiant woodwind lines, particularly in the noble second and third movements. The second, inspired by the composer’s observation of a religious procession in Italy, again had just the right through-tempo with Gardner allowing the subtlest touches of rubato in moments of transition.

The tarantella-inspired finale was taken attacca and was daringly swift. This movement is a reminder of Mendelssohn’s talent for motoric writing (marked by a repetitive beat that sounds mechanical), here proving no problem for the players in their dispatch of the dazzling, whirling triplets. I was struck, as on previous occasions, by the way in which Gardner generates excitement in symphonies: choosing an over-arching tempo that is just right for a movement with subtle, if any, deviations, ensuring that the architecture of the music is very much in evidence through careful balancing and then really injecting energy and drive into climactic moments.

Baiba Skride was the last minute replacement for indisposed violinist, Veronika Eberle. There was no sign of hasty preparation in this very fine performance. Skride’s sweet and cultured tone was ideally suited to the concerto’s blend of pathos and consolation. Her transitions into the sublime second subject and out of the cadenza were magical; the undulating spread chords of the latter blending perfectly into the orchestral reprise.

Once again, an ideally flowing tempo was found in the Andante second movement. Mendelssohn’s skilful orchestration here finds the soloist often minimally accompanied by lower string pizzicato chords, timpani strokes and solo woodwind lines interrupted by full orchestral surges, here given with no shortage of passion. After a sighing intermezzo, the playful finale was heralded by trumpet fanfares (players sporting suitably Germanic instruments). In contrast with the previous movements, this is music to make you smile. There were plenty of smiles from Skride, who wore her virtuosity lightly, and her accompanists. The lovely counter-melody as played by the cellos and horn in unison was just one example of Mendelssohn’s delights given a sublime performance.

Mendelssohn’s ‘Reformation’ symphony, though published later as his final symphony, was actually composed as his second, a fact that better helps to understand its place in his progression as a symphonic composer (the composition order of the published symphonies is 1, 5, 4, 2, 3). Whilst not as strikingly distinctive as his later symphonies, it contains many original touches.

Mendelssohn’s use of the ‘Dresden amen’ in the first movement betrays its compositional purpose, a celebration of the birth of the Lutheran Church 300 years prior. Its hushed, reverential appearance in the slow introduction and, later, at the recapitulation was skillfully conjured by the CBSO strings. This is not an easy task, juxtaposed as it is with dramatic martial elements in the winds and brass. The coda of this movement is curiously reminiscent of that of Beethoven’s ninth symphony, beginning mysteriously and darkly, hurtling fatalistically to its conclusion.

The second movement scherzo provides welcome relief after the austerity of the first. This was a joyful rendition, if a little too quick to fully appreciate the spring in Mendelssohn’s step, but the central section’s unusually louche waltz was a guilty pleasure and I appreciated yet another nod to Beethoven’s ninth in the harmonic progressions. A sense of victory over dark forces is suggested by the time we reach the finale, with Mendelssohn’s imaginative rendering of Luther’s chorale “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” underpinning the movement. There was some superb playing, from the noble intoning of the hymn tune at the opening by the principal flute to the full orchestral statement of it later on and some ear-catching timpani flourishes but it was hard to escape the nagging feeling that this inspired piece, even with such fervent advocacy, will struggle to gain a regular foothold in the concert hall.