Exclusive SD review of last night’s 5-star CBSO100 concert at the composer’s original venue:
by Christopher Morley
CBSO at Birmingham Town Hall *****
Crowds thronged the surroundings of Birmingham Town Hall whenever Mendelssohn appeared there, and crowds were thronging tonight with a nearly all-Mendelssohn programme being presented by the CBSO on a rare return to its old home. But these weren’t crowds anxious to see the great and good of the musical world; these were crowds worshipping at the Mammon of the Frankfurt Christmas market.
Let’s hurry inside this gracious building, where it was not too fanciful to imagine Mendelssohn supervising from the organ console he installed. Many members of the CBSO had never performed in this historic venue before, and many in the audience were either experiencing it for the first time, or re-living memories of long ago.
Francois Leleux was the conductor, musicianship oozing genially out of every gesture, a collaborator with his colleagues rather than a chef d’orchestre. His account of Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture began with impeccably tuned and balanced woodwind (Leleux also wears an oboist’s hat), and proceeded with a gossamer lightness, so far removed from the heavy admiration with which we are normally expected to receive this teenage masterpiece.
A neat summer night link (no, no John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John) came with the Nuits d’Ete by Berlioz, contemporary and indeed admirer of Mendelssohn. Hanni Hipp was soloist, her mezzo sensitively scaled to the intimacy of these settings (Berlioz trying so hard not to be grandiose for once), her diction beautifully delivered, and Leleux’ orchestral collaboration alive with imagery.
Leleux took to his oboe for arrangements with string accompaniment of five of Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words. These are perfect piano miniatures, but they are indeed “songs”, and as such they can work thus. Leleux’ delivery was seamless, his tone so communicative, his rapport with the players heartwarming, and all at the service of these gorgeous little pieces.
At the other end of the scale is Mendelssohn’s mighty Scottish Symphony, his Third, an early example of thematic unity as well as one of the best early evocations of atmosphere. In this account under the persuasive Leleux strings were rich and lively (and what a fantastic extended unison from first and second violins early on!), woodwind were picturesque, horns rugged, and trumpets and timpani ominous in their interjections.
This was a reading pulsating with life, and the ending, so often appearing tagged-on in many performances, was here inevitable and glorious.