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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
A Midsummer Night's Dream complete incidental music to the comedy by William Shakespeare for soloists, chorus and orchestra, Op. 61 (1843)
Edition with German narratives for male and female speakers by Renato Grüning and Thomas Leutzbach.
Various speakers
Anke Hoffmann (soprano)
Mechthild Georg (mezzo-sop)
WDR Radio Orchestra and Choir, Cologne/Helmuth Froschauer
rec. 17-22 December 2001, 4-13 March 2002 at Studio 7, Funkhaus des WDR, Cologne, Germany (text). 10-12 December 2001 at Klaus-von-Bismarck-Saal, Funkhaus Wallrafplatz, Cologne, Germany (music). DDD
CAPRICCIO CAP 60 125 [72:33 + 59:20]

"Though everything else may appear shallow and repulsive, even the smallest task in music is so absorbing, and carries us so far away from town, country, earth and all worldly things, that it is truly a blessed gift of God." Mendelssohn

This is a German language release in an edition including narratives, recited and sung in German with full texts. There is, however, a highly informative English essay provided in the annotation, but no English translation of the German text.

Mendelssohn, sometimes known as the ‘Classical Romantic’, was revered in his lifetime as one of the best-loved composers of the 19th century, particularly in Victorian England. Since the mid-nineteenth century Mendelssohn has become considerably less well regarded. Most scholars agree that the neglect of Mendelssohn’s music originated as a result of Richard Wagner’s 1850 pamphlet entitled ‘Judaism in Music’. Furthermore, following the outbreak of the First World War a forceful and intensely hostile reaction against all things German and Victorian prevailed in Britain and also in many other countries. Consequently works by German composers, such as, Mendelssohn that had once been perennial favourites of the national orchestras and provincial choral societies were ignored. The personal attacks on Mendelssohn for his Judaism were continued into the 1930s with the advent of the German National Socialists who outlawed his compositions. Even seventy years later it is apparent that the bulk of Mendelssohn’s compositions, as a result of the complete ban made by the Nazi Party, have struggled to regain their hold in the repertoire.

In Britain it has been only a handful of compositions that have kept Mendelssohn’s name in the spotlight. Acknowledged masterworks such as the Octet for Strings (1825), the Overture to a Midsummer Nights Dream (1826), the Scottish and Italian Symphonies, The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave) Overture and the Violin Concerto (1844) are the most likely to be encountered on record or in concert performance. Of the composer’s substantial choral output only the oratorio Elijah and to a lesser extent St. Paul have maintained their international popularity with choral societies. In recent decades the tide is turning in Mendelssohn’s favour and his reputation and regard are rapidly increasing. Only last year I received on my desk as many as four new versions of the complete Mendelssohn String Quartets for review; a situation that would have been unheard of several years ago. It is recordings such as this Capriccio release that are helping to redress the balance and assisting to restore Mendelssohn’s music to the repertoire.

Musicologist Edwin Evans described how Mendelssohn was born into the Romantic era, but his breeding of aristocratic fastidiousness made him averse to participation in the Romantic excesses of his time, even when writing for the symphony orchestra. Mendelssohn was perfectly comfortable composing in the old world of Classical form but that temperament and refinement he infused with a new lyricism. Undoubtedly it was a significant disadvantage for Mendelssohn to have been born nearly forty years after his fellow countryman Beethoven. This placed Mendelssohn very much in the shadow of the new and progressive musical horizons that Beethoven had created. For many years it became fashionable to disparage Mendelssohn on account of his gentle Romanticism that to later generations appeared as mere sentimentality. Subsequently a reassessment has resulted from the reaction against later excesses. Steadily Mendelssohn is becoming rehabilitated, not for his mellow Romanticism, but for his almost Classical formal elegance.

It is easy to understand why Mendelssohn and his sister Fanny were drawn to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In addition to Ludwig Tieck’s German translation of the play they studied August Wilhelm Schlegel’s translation; Schlegel was a relation of Mendelssohn by marriage. In contrast to the Shakespearian tragedies, the comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream is free from serious political dimensions. Mendelssohn with his innate Romantic yearning for fairytale enchantment was captivated by the dreamlike nocturnal magic that unfolds in a moonlit forest peopled by fairies, elves, spirits and clowns; a childlike fantasy world where everything is subject to the caprices of nature.

So attracted was Mendelssohn that in homage he wrote his substantial Concert Overture, to A Midsummer Night’s Dream for two pianos in 1826. This he later orchestrated as his Op. 21. The miracle of A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture is that such a perfect realisation of the play could have been composed when he was only seventeen. Seventeen years after writing A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture, Mendelssohn was commissioned by King Frederick William of Prussia, for a Potsdam production of the play, to add to the Overture twelve short movements to serve as incidental music.

The background to the texts used for this Capriccio recording is a convoluted one. Shakespeare’s works had enjoyed a great popularity in Germany since the middle of the18th century, thanks to Christoph Wieland’s German translations of 1762-66. The later German translations by Johann Eschenburg inspired August Wilhelm Schlegel to undertake his own translations of Shakespeare’s texts. Mendelssohn originally wrote the score to accompany theatrical performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Schlegel’s translation. Very soon after the performances need was felt for a concert version with spoken parts. A narrator relates the course of the action in shortened form. These were written by Oskar Wolff in 1851. The edition presented here by Capriccio adheres to Oskar Wolff’s basic concept of his concert version. The characters speak Shakespeare’s original lines in Schlegel’s translation, but Wolff’s narratives are not used; instead, for this recording Renato Grüning and Thomas Leutzbach have written new extended narratives for male and female speaker in a style that matches Schlegel’s poetic diction.

The conductor Helmuth Froschauer and his WDR Radio Orchestra of Cologne provide an affectionate performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture that doesn’t quite have that special magical ingredient offered by the very best versions. For this you need to turn to Peter Maag and the LSO on Decca. Froschauer is feather-light in the Scherzo and in the Fairy’s March his woodwind impress in the nocturnal magic. In You Spotted Snakes with Double Tongues (track 6) Anke Hoffmann and Mechthild Georg are satisfying and in the Intermezzo the Cologne Orchestra offer an interpretation convincingly evocative of the moonlit glade. I enjoyed the excellent performance of the famous Nocturne episode, where the prominent horn soloist displays an appealing timbre. The brass are splendid in the world famous Wedding March without providing Maag’s assurance and weight. In the Finale the wonderful Dance of the Clowns is obscured by a layer of narration and then a passage for the chorus which is disappointing when compared to Maag-Decca disc which extracted the music and where it is played in finest form. The sound quality from the Capriccio engineers, although acceptable, can sometimes feel rather distant and muffled.

This Capriccio release has to compete with the finest available recordings of the complete version the best of which is the beautiful performance from Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Tanglewood Festival Choir on Deutsche Grammophon 439 897-2. Ozawa’s DG disc has the advantage of Dame Judy Dench providing the speaking part. There is also a large body of support for the account from André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra and Finchley Children’s Music Group on EMI 747163-2 or on EMI Encore 5 74981-2. It is worth noting that Previn’s version on EMI is without the spoken parts.

Those wanting a recording of the A Midsummer Night’s Dream Concert Overture, Op. 21 together with well chosen excerpts from the Incidental Music, Op. 61, without spoken narratives, need not hesitate with the 1957 Kingsway Hall, London account from Peter Maag and the London Symphony Orchestra on Decca Legends 289 466 990-2. Maag may be an unfamiliar name to some but this Mendelssohn specialist is on excellent form with sparkling playing.

Michael Cookson

CD 1
1. A Midsummer Night's Dream Overture, Op. 21 (1826) [10:42]
2. Der Dichter Führt Uns Nach Athen [08:16]
3. Urplötzlich Aber Greifen Fremde Kräfte [04:54]
4. He, Geist! Wo Geht Die Reise Hin? [03:31]
5. Schlimm Treffen Wir Bei Mondlicht [11:27]
6. Kommt! Ein Ringel, -Ein Feensang! [04:09]
7. Was Du Wirst Erwachend Sehn [07:28]
8. Intermezzo [03:06]
9. Sind Wir Alle Beisammen? [18:58]
CD 2

1. Pflegt Spott Und Hohn In Tränen Sich Zu Kleiden? [15:31]
2. Notturno [05:48]
3. Komm, Lass Uns Hier Auf Blumenbetten Kosen! [07:21]
4. Hochzeitsmarsch [04:23]
5. Wenn Mein Stichwort Komt, Ruft Mich [15:04]
6. Wie Kommt's, Dass Der Mondschein Weggegangen Ist [02:29]
7. Die Mitternacht Rief Zwölf Mit Ehrner Zunge [01:31]
8. Jetzt Beheult Der Wolf Den Mond [01:54]
9. Bei Des Feuers Mattem Flimmern [05:17]


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