Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
A Midsummer Night's Dream, Op. 21, Op.61 (1826/1842)
Complete Incidental Music sung in English
see end of review for track listing
Jenny Wollerman* (soprano) Pepe Becker † (soprano)
Narrators: Tom Mison (Oberon, Snout, Moth) Adrian Grove (Puck, Philostrate) Emily Raymond (Titania, Hermia) Anne-Marie Piazza (Helena, Fairy, Hippolyta, Peaseblossom) Gunnar Cauthery (Demetrius, Quince, Mustard Seed) Peter Kenny (Lysander, Flute, Cobweb) David Timson (Theseus, Bottom)
Varsity Voices Nota Bene Choir
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/Judd
rec. 8-10 September 2003 (orchestral music) & 14 August 2007 (vocal items), Wellington Town Hall, New Zealand. Speech recorded 14 September 2009, Motivation Sound Studios, Swiss Cottage, London.
NAXOS 8.570794
[76.44]

In a very crowded field, a recording of this Mendelssohnian tour de force has to be special to head the list. I don’t think this Naxos issue is the one to rise to the top but it has a unique advantage in that it gives us more of the play than any other recording; not just mere excerpts but all the melodramas - the musical accompaniments which punctuate the spoken verse. At 77 minutes, it is the most complete version available.
 
It is this inclusion which constitutes the disc’s greatest strength but which also admits of some weaknesses. An assembly of young British actors, directed by David Timson (who also very ably plays both Bottom and Theseus), provides variety and characterisation rather than relying upon the talents of one Big Name actor. Unfortunately, I came to listen to them just after having heard the solo contribution of Dame Judi Dench in the Ozawa/DG account. There might be only one of her, but she contains multitudes, and the warmth and versatility of her interpretations of all the characters overshadow the efforts of the youthful Naxos actors. Certain aspects of their performance are very attractive, but some members of their company needed a more acute supervisory ear to guide them in their delivery of Shakespeare’s text. Sometimes their diction is flawed; the odd Estuary vowel (“ee-ow” in “flower”, “wahld” for “wild”) creeps in, and their ability to inflect the verse with nuance and subtlety has its limitations, especially when it comes to the proper treatment of enjambment: there is too much end-stopping, which can create a choppy effect. First impressions are compromised by the fact that the actors who open proceedings as Puck and a Fairy think that the way to suggest “faeriness” is to affect a constricted, nasal tone that is almost immediately grating. It is a form of emphasis that singers sometimes affect and is vocal production of the kind my old voice teacher used to call “on the grab.” Matters pick up after that: Emily Raymond is a gracious, sensuous Titania, even if she does mispronounce “reremice” (an archaic word for “bats”) as “rarer-mice” instead of the correct “rearmice”. Tom Mison makes a competent job of Oberon but “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows” goes for nothing. The Mechanicals are a jolly bunch and as I mentioned above, David Timson shows his skill and versatility by playing two totally different characters very convincingly. If you want to get a much fuller experience of the music integrated into the play as literature as the composer intended rather than just listen to bleeding chunks, this disc fits the bill.
 
In his biography of the composer, Heinrich Eduard Jacob says that Mendelssohn scribbled the evocative rising sequence of four chords which open the overture after hearing an evening breeze rustle the leaves in the garden of the family's home. The scurrying staccato strings which answer need to be as gossamer-light as fairies' wings.

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra play well enough under James Judd, but they are no match for the sheer, silky beauty of the Boston Symphony Orchestra with Ozawa. There is no real sense of the “otherworldly” in the overture here - though to be fair even the Boston Symphony Orchestra for Ozawa does not achieve the ethereal delicacy of John Nelson with the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris on a rival Virgin Classics version; their fairy feet really scamper pianissimo. On several occasions the New Zealand strings make a slightly creaky start, wavering particularly at the opening of the Melodrama on Band 6 and the Nocturne. Horns and flutes, however, are especially fine, and they are so important in this music to evoke the mystery of the magic wood.
 
The two local sopranos here are utterly outclassed by the shimmering purity of Kathleen Battle's fluting soprano paired with the slightly warmer and equally lovely mezzo of Frederica von Stade in their "Spotted Snakes" song. Nor do they match well; Jenny Wollerman employs ripe vibrato while her partner, Pepe Becker, has a much more boyish sound with an incipient tremolo; they do not really integrate and the effect is incongruous.
 
Both this Naxos and the Virgin recordings give us a lot more text delivered by a small company of actors and thus offers a slightly more complete theatrical experience, but despite the fact that Nelson gives us the best Overture and Judd the most complete performance, neither is quite as satisfying, musically speaking, as the superbly recorded 1992 version on DG by Ozawa, which still leads the field. If you want the songs in German, Claus Peter Flor’s account with Lucia Popp singing very prettily is a good option, but the translation is, unsurprisingly, not as magical as the original Shakespearian English, and Flor is rather sedate and measured in the Previn manner; I prefer a more vivacious and mercurial touch such Ozawa and Nelson provide. However, Judd and his New Zealanders perform the Big Tune numbers with wit, warmth and brio; the Wedding March is ebullient, the donkey’s braying in the Bergomasque suitably raucous, the timpani in the Fairies’ March charmingly piquant.
 
One oddity: the production of this disc extended over seven years: the orchestral music was recorded in Wellington Town Hall as long ago as 2003, the vocal items were made in 2007 at the same venue, then it was not before 2009 that the spoken contributions were recorded in England - and now the disc has finally appeared. At least the interval between the inception and issue of this disc was not as drawn out as that between the seventeen-year-old Mendelssohn’s composition of the overture and his addition of the fourteen incidental numbers sixteen years later in 1842. As has often been remarked, the manner in which he picked up the themes and threads is extraordinarily felicitous. This was obviously a sustained, long-term enterprise by Naxos and as super-bargain issues go, it is very good, but I see little reason to prefer it when the market abounds in bargain versions of even better musical quality - unless you specifically want the completeness and authenticity of a performance as Mendelssohn conceived of it - but for that the Virgin Classics issue is superior.
 
Ralph Moore 

Track listing
1. Overture [12:36]
2. Act I: Scherzo [4:24]
3. Act II Scene 1: How now, spirit! [2:22]
4. Act II Scene 1: Fairies' March - Ill met by moonlight [4:19]
5. Act II Scene 2: Come, now a roundel and a fairy song - Song with Chorus: Ye spotted snakes * † [4:09]
6. Act II Scene 2: What thou seest, when thou dost wake [1:38]
7. Act II: Intermezzo [3:34]
8. Act III Scene 1: Come, sit down, every mother's son [6:57]
9. Act III Scene 2: I wonder if Titania be awaked [7:04]
10. Act III: Nocturne [6:03]
11. Act IV Scene 1: Her dotage now I do begin to pity… [5:00]
12. Act IV Scene 1: Wedding March [4:44]
13. Act V Scene 1: So please your grace, the Prologue is address'd [2:53]
14. Act V Scene 1: Funeral March: How chance Moonshine is gone [1:35]
15. Act V Scene 1: A Dance of Clowns: The iron tongue of midnight hath told twelve [3:41]
16. Act V Scene 1: Through the house give glimmering light [0:29]
17. Act V Scene 1: Song: Through this house give glimmering light*
Now until the break of day… [5:11]

The following Comments have been submitted by David Timson

 


The speaking of Shakespeare is a mine-field, there are so many theories and practices that in the end which school you subscribe to, can only be matter of personal taste. Peter Hall for instance believes that the lines should be end-stopped to preserve the metre, this can at times disrupt the sense in my opinion, and modern performance of Shakespeare as taught largely in drama schools is for length of line to preserve the sense (sometimes extended over 3 Ĺ lines by Shakespeare) rather than slavishly follow the metre (the iambic pentameter). Shakespeare himself breaks his own rules continuously in this respect and instead of keeping a regular beat of 5 stressed syllables per line will add a sixth or break the line after 2 beats to indicate a significant pause required for the emotional journey of the character Ė and this is the point, Shakespeare is writing a dramatic play with characters not a sequence of poetry. Of course, an actor must do the poetic construction justice but Shakespeare (in my opinion) was a dramatist first and a poet second. Therefore I thought it essential that in the recording we gave a sense of the play and not poetic chunks. Criticism of characterisation etc. again is a matter of taste, but the actors were chosen for their ability to vocally characterise, so that a sense of the play was maintained in the extracts that were backed by Mendelssohnís melodramas. I think the words and music should complement each other here, not compete, though it was necessary sometimes to serve Mendelssohnís music at the expense of the flow of the verse, his cues sometimes timing differently, no doubt because he was originally using the German text. I say Ďserve Mís musicí because I was aware that this was a disc produced primarily for the music-lover perhaps rather than the theatre-goer.
Comparisons are odious, but with regard to the recording made by Ozawa, with Judi Dench. Judi Dench is of course excellent, but it is obvious that she has been directed to read the excerpts (heavily cut) as poetry. There is little attempt at characterisation, which might over-shadow the poetry, (a touch of rustic for the mechanicals, whose text is mainly cut out of the recording), and the pieces are read without any sense of their context in the play. This style of presentation means that despite having the leading British actress of her generation on the disc, she doesnít upstage the music. We chose the opposite approach of giving listeners the opportunity to hear the play and Mendelssohnís response to it as an integrated experience.