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Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD's arrangements of Mendelssohn's music for Max Reinhardt's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream Celina Lindsley (Titania); Michelle Breedt (Fairy); Scot Weir (Demetrius and Lysander); Michael Burt (Oberon); Rundfunkchor Berlin; Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin  conducted by Gerd Albrecht  cpo 999 449-2 [59:58]



The Background

Klauss P. Hanusa worked with George Korngold, the composer's son to produce recordings of Korngold's works, in Germany, such as Die tote Stadt and the Sinfonietta. In the CD booklet notes, Hanusa describes how he had tried to interest George in recording his father's work for A Midsummer Night's Dream. George was not keen enough to prioritise such a project because he reckoned that it was more Mendelssohn than Korngold. However, I feel quite justified in expressing the heading as above because Korngold's contribution to Max Reinhardt's film of his stage production of Shakespeare's comedy was, as I think you will agree, when you hear this marvellous album, very significant. In typical modesty, Korngold chose not to be credited at all in the film's titles leaving all the glory to Mendelssohn.

Reinhardt, who had worked with Korngold before, did not hesitate to invite the composer over to Hollywood from Vienna to arrange and supervise the scoring of his film. It was Korngold's first visit to the film capital but Warner Bros were impressed enough with his commitment and talent to summon him back to score other films notably the swashbuckler romances of Errol Flynn beginning with Captain Blood. His Hollywood contract undoubtedly saved him from the clutches of the Nazis.

Korngold at work on A Midsummer Night's Dream

Ever the perfectionist, Korngold went to extreme pains over the music for A Midsummer Nights Dream. As soon as he arrived at Warner Bros., he asked a technician how long one foot was; "Twelve inches", he was told cynically. "No", Korngold insisted, "I mean how long does it last on screen." Apparently nobody had asked this before but when the answer came back - two thirds of a second, Korngold was delighted. "Ach exactly the same length of time as the first two measures of Mendelssohn's Scherzo!"

Victor Jory (who played so many villains in the 1930s and 1940s) played Oberon. He remembered how Korngold carefully rehearsed him in the precise rhythms that he wanted for the famous speech which begins "I know a bank where the wild thyme grows" When it came to the actual filming Korngold lay in some bushes out of camera range and literally conducted Jory's performance as though he was singing his lines. This sort of meticulous care and resourcefulness soon established Korngold's authority over director (William Dieterle who was in full accord with Korngold's wishes) and actors in matters as they might affect the music. Such a practice had never been encountered before but Korngold, on this film, established procedures that would influence the medium right up to the present day. He also steadily built up the Warner Bros orchestra, which at this time, was merely a glorified dance band into a proper symphony orchestra.

The film of A Midsummer Nights Dream had 114 minutes of music. Clearly Mendelssohn's composition of the same name had insufficient material, so Korngold supplemented it with quotations from many other Mendelssohn compositions. It is testament to Korngold's skill and sympathetic treatment that the integration of all this extra music is so seamless and sounds so natural. In places where new adaptation occurs, Korngold expanded the orchestra to include saxophones, piano, guitar and vibraphone plus extra percussion and harp. He also thickened Mendelssohn's textures especially in the lower strings to compensate for the limitations of the monaural sound recording where the altogether more delicate scoring of early 19th century orchestration would have been lost. The additional instruments are used almost exclusively for the 'magical' effects which were necessary to match the exotic scenes on screen. A wordless chorus, for the fairies, is also added.

The Recording

Let me start by saying that the playing of the Berlin Orchestra is simply glorious; beautiful phrasing and textures clear and transparent. The sound engineering is excellent. The recording opens with a seven minute Overture instead of the Title Music. This Overture was played in theatres before the opening credits during the film's initial release and then discarded. It includes music from Mendelssohn's original Overture, Op 21 as well as from the Nocturne and the music for the Rustics.

Every one of the following 25 tracks are enchanting. I will mention just a few. 'Theseus-Hymn' begins as a stirring fanfare and then proceeds into an exhilarating choral adaptation of the finale of Mendelssohn's Third 'Scottish' Symphony. Then there is Korngold's ravishingly beautiful arrangement for tenor and orchestra of On Wings of Song transposed up from G flat to G major. Scot Weir sings what becomes the lovely song 'O Live With Me and Be My Love' most beguilingly. 'The Fog Dance' for fairies' chorus and a gossamer delicate orchestra is sheer magic. 'Oberon's Plan' (referred to above in the context of Korngold conducting Victor Jory's spoken lines) is underscored by a beautiful arrangement of the song An die Entfernte. Titania, as sung with bell-like purity by lyric soprano Celina Lindsley, sings her lied to Mendelssohn's lovely Lied Ohne Worte Op 67 No. 6. The ravishing Intermezzo is taken directly from the Entr'acte between Acts II and III of the original incidental score. 'Wedding Waltz', in three quarter time and newly and wittily orchestrated, includes a buffoonish use of three jazzy saxophones. 'Titania's Song' is an enchanting arrangement of the so-called Venetian Gondola's Song from the Lieder Ohne Worte Op. 19, No. 6. The famous Nocturne is played transposed down a semitone into E flat major because Reinhardt's conception was set in darkest night. Of course, the suite would not be complete without Mendelssohn's famous 'Wedding March'. The finale ingeniously and touchingly blends foregoing themes.

An album to treasure. One that will be a strong contender when Film Music on the Web Awards come round again.


Ian Lace


Ian Lace

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