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
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 –
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
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
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
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.