It was Birmingham’s Town Hall where Felix Mendelssohn chose to premiere his mighty oratorio Elijah in 1846.
By then the city venue had become a familiar place to the German composer who had performed here several times during the 1830s and 1840s.
Now the CBSO will be holding a short series of concerts at the Town Hall to celebrate Mendelssohn’s music with current principal guest conductor Edward Gardner, conducting a complete cycle of all five symphonies by the composer, along with other works by him.
“The well-known image of Mendelssohn is of the prodigy and musical polyglot, able to sight-read Bach fugues in any key, an incredible compositional facility and awesome melodist,” says Edward, who is currently rehearsing for English National Opera’s new production of Beethoven’s Fidelio.
“I agree with all this, but there’s so much more – his religious duality, with such a strong Jewish background and subsequent Lutheran beliefs, which spawn the great Reformation Symphony. There’s also a neurosis about his work, with revisions, and the disowning of early compositions. I find this all adds up to a far more complex character than we generally consider, and in many ways it confirms him as a real early Romantic composer.
“There’s intimacy and delicacy in these works, alongside the dramatic gestures, and I feel too large a hall can dwarf this. It’s also one of the first halls I heard the CBSO in, when I was still a chorister at Gloucester cathedral, so it’s a privilege for me to conduct there for the first time.”
And as he conducts, Edward Gardner will be facing the organ which Mendelssohn actually had installed in that position, and on which he performed to such acclaim.
“I’m incredibly proud to be performing his works in this environment that he loved so much, and I’m sure that will inform all of our music-making with a sense of immediacy to this great composer,” Edward declares.
“He had such respect for Birmingham, and the people who performed his music here, and the ovations he himself received. It’s so exciting to be re-creating this atmosphere in what could be considered ‘his’ hall.”
Edward talks of Mendelssohn’s five symphonies, and how they stand in relation to the development of the form during the 19th century.
“My knee-jerk reaction would be to say they stand on their own, but it’s a little more complex than that,” Edward continues.
“The thrust of some of the allegro first and last movements have an air of Haydn and also a little bit of Beethoven, the stormy opening of the first symphony, or the allegro of the Reformation – I hear both composers.
“However in the lyrical slow movements, Mendelssohn’s extraordinary melodic genius comes out – the achingly beautiful slow movement of the third symphony for instance, that is high romance, and then I feel we’re looking forward to Schumann, Weber, and eventually Wagner (and it’s no coincidence that Wagner uses the recurring motif in the Reformation for his last opera, Parsifal) We tend to think of the great Romantic composers as writing angst-ridden dark movements, but the warmer sound and harmonies of Felix Mendelssohn are equally in this tradition.”
Edward laments the absence of Elijah from the current series. It’s a pity it can’t be fitted in as well.
“That’s true, but I’m sure we can find a place for this somewhere down the line! As I study the symphonies, I’m constantly wondering at the impact Elijah must have made in that comparatively intimate space- it must have sent the fear of God into everyone present!”
* Edward Gardner conducts the CBSO in Mendelssohn at Birmingham Town Hall on October 19 (3pm), October 24 (2.15pm) and at Symphony Hall on February 13 (7.30pm). Details on 0121 780 3333.