Most of these pieces are Concert Overtures, rather than being preludes to operas or plays. Felix Mendelssohn was an expert in this genre. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an interesting variation on this tradition since the fifteen-year-old composer wrote the Overture to Shakespeare’s play, and included identifiable references to characters and events, yet the incidental music was not published until twenty years later when some of the themes within the Overture reappear during individual scenes. Edward Gardner takes a forthright view. Naturally fairies and quiet woodlands are represented but powerful climaxes and a firm drive are the most notable features. Full-orchestra passages have great impact and there is excellent detail from the important timpani, captured clearly even when they are played quietly.
Timpani are also used imaginatively in Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage and they have a startling solo towards the close. The work is inspired by two Goethe poems linked to make a programmatic piece. The English title may not entirely represent the poetic intention because the long, hushed introduction, sensitively interpreted here, concerns the absence of fair winds. The jubilant ‘Prosperous Voyage’ section is a quasi-symphonic movement and I note it is given a separate track number.
The Overture to Paulus has Baroque overtones and includes a theme based on the Lutheran chorale ‘Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme’, which J. S. Bach used in a Cantata; a Bach-like fugue is also included. This is a serious work – a noble concert piece. The Trumpet Overture is an imposing composition by the teenage Mendelssohn, grand and celebratory; perhaps its neglect is caused by the unimaginative title – true it starts with a trumpet but thereafter that instrument is not particularly featured; it is the imaginative woodwind-writing that really captures the attention. Gardner drives the music forward vigorously to exciting effect.
The Hebrides finds him interpreting Mendelssohn more subjectively than usual; in particular he allows much freedom of tempo. A special moment in the work is the return of the subsidiary melody led calmly on clarinet. The score does not indicate any relaxation of speed but Gardner is very expansive here and the beauty of this passage does seem to demand a lingering approach.
The Overture to Racine’s play Athalie is by Mendelssohn’s standards a little conventional – especially when it comes to the long, emphatic coda. Apart from the ‘War March of the Priests’, the incidental music, much of which involves voices, is rarely performed and somehow the CBSO sounds not so spick and span as in the companion works; nevertheless there are pleasing moments – especially when a melody sings expressively over harp accompaniment.
The legend of The Fair Melusine – a water sprite, known of since Mediaeval times – is another programmatic concert opus. It was a great favourite of Thomas Beecham. One of many anecdotes concerning this conductor mentions the time when, with microphones open, he responded to the announcer’s description of the music by asking: “did he say Water Spout?”. Although Mendelssohn’s music can be related to the episodes in the tale this is again a symphonic structure in which sonata form is evident. The flowing theme suggests that the sprite must have been both delicate and beautiful and the CBSO turns the gentle phrases elegantly. Gardner carefully weaves the climactic moments into the poetic themes, recognising that heavy drama is not part of the story. Ruy Blas is performed with great impetus. Unusually there are many tempo indications. Gardner copes with this by keeping the pulse similar regardless of the basic speed. Phrasing is sympathetic, especially in the rich subsidiary melody – every time I hear it, it seems to be more like Elgar than Mendelssohn.
Considering that the recordings were made over several years (and some have been available before) the sound is surprisingly consistent with only Ruy Blas having a little less presence. The CBSO’s warm quality is enhanced by the sympathetic acoustic of Birmingham Town Hall and does Mendelssohn’s music full justice.