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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Ein Sommernachtstraum: A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Overture, Op.21 (1829) and Incidental Music, Op.61 (1843)1 [44:58]
Die erste Walpurgisnacht, Op. 60: The First Walpurgis Night (1831, pub.1842)2 [33:31]
Lynne Dawson (soprano); Dalia Schaechter (mezzo); Frauenchor des Rundfunk, Berlin; Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (Berlin RSO)/Vladimir Ashkenazy1
Margarita Lilowa (mezzo); Horst Laubenthal (tenor); Tom Krause (baritone); Alfred Sramek (bass)
Wiener Singverein; Wiener Philharmoniker/Christoph von Dohnányi2
rec. 1 Schauspielhaus, Berlin, September 1992; 2 Sofiensaal, Vienna, June 1976. DDD/ADD.
DECCA ELOQUENCE 4801279
[78:39] 

 

Experience Classicsonline


This reissue combines Ashkenazy’s account of the Midsummer Night’s Dream music, of which the overture at least is one of Mendelssohn’s best-known compositions, together with Dohnányi’s Die erste Walpurgisnacht, which must be one of his least-performed works.  The former dropped out of the catalogue fairly quickly because of the strength of the competition, the latter, presumably, because too few potential purchasers had even heard of the work.
 

Ashkenazy’s overture starts promisingly enough but it soon becomes apparent that the last indefinable touch of magic is missing, as if Askenazy merely likes the music but doesn’t love it.  What’s lacking is that little extra that Beecham brought - to the overture, on SOMMB19 – I don’t think he ever recorded the rest of the music. 

That impression continues throughout the incidental music, particularly in the vocal items, with a rather matter-of-fact Bunte Schlangen (‘Ye spotted snakes’).  This would serve well enough in a concert performance; there’s not much wrong with the playing and singing and the recording is good, if not outstanding.  There are some attractive touches – the elfin horns in the Overture and Notturno (tr.6), for example, but it won’t quite do for repeated listening on CD, especially when there is such strong competition, some of it in the budget-price range. 

I haven’t heard Kurt Masur’s earlier Electrola recording, recently issued at budget price on Berlin Classics but Gwyn Parry-Jones thought it distinguished indeed (0014342BC – see review).  I have heard his later account, now on a Warner box set (see below), which is also very good.  There are also two recommendable budget-price recordings from the EMI stable: Andrew Litton on Classics for Pleasure 5751422 and André Previn on Encore 5749802. 

Walpurgisnacht is a different matter, with much less choice available.  If the Dream music requires a little more affection than Ashkenazy gives it, Walpurgisnacht needs slightly more intensity in places than it receives from Dohnányi. 

Christopher Howell made Peter Maag’s recording on the Arts Archive label recording of the Month (43042-2 – see review) but this version doesn’t seem to be easy to come by.  I could find it at only one of the online dealers which I tried and it isn’t offered as a download by passionato, who carry most of the Arts recordings. 

Kurt Masur’s very fine earlier Electrola performance, formerly on HMV, is now available from Berlin Classics (0020572BC, mid price) and his later, very good, account of Midsummer Night’s Dream, comes with Michel Corboz’s Walpurgisnacht on a 5-CD box set from Warner Classics, with the Psalms and Te Deum (2564 692676, around £20).   Recordings by D’avalos on the budget IMP label and by Harnoncourt, the latter coupled like this Eloquence reissue, with the Dream music, were praised when they appeared, but seem to have suffered the deletions axe.  Dohnányi’s later Telarc recording, praised in some quarters as the best available, and reissued at mid price, is still on offer (CD-80184), as is the RCA version from Claus Peter Flor, also highly regarded (6-CDs, budget price, 8287667885 or as a single-CD download from amazon.co.uk). 

Dohnányi’s Decca version originally came coupled on two LPs with a less recommendable Symphony No.2, the Lobgesang, or Hymn of Praise, of which there have since been several preferable recordings, so it is good to see it reissued on this very inexpensive Eloquence CD, even if it isn’t quite ideal. 

He starts with an urgent performance of the overture, here offered on one track (tr.12) instead of divided into das schlechte Wetter and der Übergang zum Frühling, as on the Maag and Flor recordings.  Dohnányi’s 9:00 for the whole overture is more urgent than Maag’s 8:09 and 2:02 but a little less urgent than Flor’s 7:15 and 1:30; it seems to me a valid compromise between those two tempi.  There’s plenty of energy in Dohnányi’s evocation of winter and tenderness in the transition to spring.  Time enough to pull out the stops later, in the second part of Diese dumpfen Pfaffenchristen ... Kommt mit Zacken und mit Gabeln (tr.17) – ‘let’s use prongs and forks to scare these stupid Christians with the Devil whom they’ve made up!’. 

In any case, the devilry is mostly a joke: disturbed by the Christians in celebrating their spring festival, on St Walburga’s night, the 25th of February (Walpurgisnacht) the supporters of the druids don devil masks to frighten their opponents away.  Goethe can’t have intended his ballad to be taken too seriously; his pagans are a curious mixture of the Druids and Nordic worship of Allvater.  The section following the Overture, Es lacht der Mai! (tr.13) is proto-romantic enjoyment of nature and that’s how it comes over here. 

The Christians’ exhortation to attack the heathen sinners (Könnt ihr so verwegen handeln?   ... Auf die Heiden, auf die Sünder, tr.14) is potentially more serious stuff and receives appropriate treatment from Dohnányi.  Their hatred contrasts with the pagans’ insistence on ein reines Herz, purity of heart (So weit gebracht, tr.18) which Mendelssohn sets with the same intensity as the Christian texts in the Lobgesang, or Second Symphony, a religious intensity not quite ideally captured here.  Mendelssohn had composed the Lobgesang between completing Walpurgisnacht and publishing it, and there are real points of similarity between them. 

The power of the pagans’ hymn of praise contrasts again with the staccato fear of the Christians (Hilf, ach hilf mir) on the same track, as they fancy themselves pursued by Höllenbroden, hellish bands; at the end, the hymn to the sacred light rounds off the work with a religious intensity which Dohnányi and his performers do capture this time: Die Flamme reinigt sich vom rauch ... Dein Licht, wer kann es rauben!  Goethe’s devilry may be playful, but his Enlightenment plea for religious tolerance is genuine enough and Mendelssohn captures the essence of his intention – after all, his own grandfather Moses Mendelssohn had been an Enlightenment philosopher. 

When these recordings were first released at full price Decca offered texts and translations, sadly not included with this reissue.  The words of the sung parts of the Midsummer Night’s Dream music are familiar enough from Shakespeare, but Walpurgisnacht is a very different consideration.  The original Goethe poem may be found online at textlog.de. 

With good recording throughout and decent notes, apart from the lack of texts, this reissue is worthwhile.  There are better alternatives, especially for the Dream music, some of them at mid- or bargain-price, but none of them is quite so inexpensive or so generously coupled.

Brian Wilson






 
 


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