Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (William Shakespeare (1564-1616))
Overture, Op.21 [11.44]; Incidental music, Op.61 [100.08]
(with play adapted by Adrian Farmer)
Eirian James and Judith Howarth (sopranos): Scottish Philharmonic Singers; Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Jaime Laredo
with John Holbeck (Theseus, Snout); Susan Oliver (Hippolyta, Helena); Ian Sexon (Egeus, Philostrate, Bottom); Helen McGregor (Hermia, Fairy); William Elliott (Demetrius, Flute); Ray Dunsire (Lysander, Quince, Snug); William Blair (Puck, Starveling); Richard Greenwood (Oberon, Snout, Cobweb); Elizabeth Phillips-Scott (Titania)
rec. 1985 using Ambisonic microphones; Venue and date otherwise unstated
NIMBUS NI 5041/2 [54.42 + 57.10]
Mendelssohn’s incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of those theatrical scores, like Grieg’s Peer Gynt, which loses immeasurably by being given in the form of orchestral suites without dialogue. Much of the music is written to be performed as ‘melodrama’, that is, spoken over orchestral accompaniment. Without the voices much of the dramatic impact which the composer intended is lost. So it makes sense to perform the score, as here, in the context of an abridged version of the Shakespeare play for which it was originally composed.
When this is done, it is essential that the interplay between music and dialogue is tightly maintained so that there are no unseemly delays or mismatches between the two. This is certainly achieved here, for the actors are in the same acoustic space as the orchestra. The recording venue is not given, but to judge from the booklet photographs it does not look like the reverberant hall at Wyastone Leys where so many Nimbus recordings are made although it sounds very similar. This means that the actors are set slightly back in a realistic theatrical ambience and not in the close-up focus to which listeners may be accustomed. It works well, although the voices of the actors are sometimes somewhat lacking in immediacy when they move away from the microphone. The doublings of the actors are somewhat peculiar – sometimes they are taking two distinct roles in the same scene, adopting different accents. The mechanicals appear to be decidedly Scottish, while the various pairs of lovers and the fairies - including the proletarian Puck - are very English. Adrian Farmer’s abridgement of the Shakespeare play is sensible, and no elements of the disparate plot are lost; while there is plenty of sense of stage movement in the placement of the actors. They are perhaps not the most characterful of performers, but their nicely paced delivery will perhaps better bear repetition than any barnstorming would.
After the overture – written by the teenage Mendelssohn some thirty years before the rest of the score – the whole of the First Act of Shakespeare’s play is devoid of incidental music; just over eight minutes of dialogue here. As we move into the enchanted wood, the orchestral cues come thick and fast. After the Scherzo, in the scene between Puck and the Fairy, Jaime Laredo is not quite as prompt in picking up the cues as one might wish. The final fragmentary reminiscence of the scherzo - which should perhaps underpin dialogue – although the cues in my score only give the German translation which Mendelssohn originally used - is played between spoken phrases. The brief snippets of music make much better logic here than in the context which we sometimes hear them, where they are played one after the other without any sense of the dialogue which they are intended to illustrate. The underpinnings of the scenes where Oberon and Puck enchant the lovers and Bottom, for example, positively require the dialogue in order to make any sense at all of the music. It is perhaps odd that Mendelssohn composes no music for the song which Bottom sings and which awakes Titania. The tune employed here fits well with the quotations from the overture which are sprinkled throughout the scene. The extensive melodrama passages which in the score constitute No.6 (practically all of Act Three of the play – including the dialogue this is by a considerable margin the longest movement in the score) are split between the two CDs, but the break makes dramatic sense.
Jaime Laredo uses a smallish orchestra, matching the size which Mendelssohn might have expected. The balance is excellent with the strings well defined and the woodwind – not too predominant – nice and characterful. There are innumerable recordings of this music, and listeners may well prefer a larger and more upholstered sound, but there is nevertheless plenty of body here. The romantic Nocturne is beautifully played with the right sort of impassioned dreaminess, and the famous Wedding March has all the panache that one would wish at a proper Allegro vivace speed. The delightful reprise of a passage from the Nocturne (with a new string counterpoint) that underlines Oberon’s words “Come, my queen, takes hands with me” is a real emotional highlight. Incidentally the (in)famous passage for ophicleide in the Bergomask Dance sounds as though a real ophicleide was used, or maybe it is just a deliciously vulgar tuba. It is much less noticeable in the similar passage in the Overture, and the clearly deliberate distinction shows how carefully the dramatic side of the music has been considered.
The play-within-a-play Pyramus and Thisbe has almost no incidental music until the little funeral march - often played as a purely instrumental number without the dialogue intended to be spoken over it - at the end, and constitutes the second longest passage of spoken dialogue (about seven minutes) in this recording. The actors here don’t make as much of the humour as they might. The result is the one point in this recording which drags a little; Ian Sexon as Bottom sounds more than a little like Billy Connolly here. The final scene, from the Bergomask Dance onward, is a real delight. First we have the diminuendo reprise of the Wedding March which leads into the opening chords of the overture, sustained under Oberon’s words “Through the house give glimmering light”. This music really only makes sense with the dialogue. Recording both simultaneously means that the correlation between the two can be precisely judged.
There are several other recordings of the Mendelssohn score which make use of actors (many very distinguished) to speak the dialogue in the appropriate places. All those I have heard have clearly been post-dubbed, with the speaking voices set down over previously recorded orchestral tracks. This may be inevitable where CDs are destined for the international market, but it seems to me that Shakespeare’s text deserves to be heard in the original language, just as we accept much inferior spoken dialogue when we listen to recordings of German and French operettas by Strauss and Offenbach. The give-and-take of recording speakers and orchestra at the same time - even if sometimes the interchange could be crisper here - pays considerable dividends. Those who are allergic to the speeches may be disappointed to find that the tracking on these CDs does not allow the dialogue to be skipped, but they will miss the essential element of drama which is implicit in Mendelssohn’s score. Non-English speaking listeners should however note that no texts or translations of the play are given in the booklet.
As a recording of the Shakespeare play and Mendelssohn’s incidental music treated as an integral unit, then, this is very much a set which stands unchallenged in the catalogue. Its only rival for completeness - and the text is much more heavily cut - comes from mainly Parisian forces conducted by John Nelsons, with a cast of genteel and anonymous actors from the “Oxford and Cambridge Shakespeare Society” who are located in a clearly different acoustic from the singers and orchestra. Listeners who love this music, one of the greatest works ever written for the spoken theatre, should experience it in its dramatic context; afterwards hearing the music shorn of the dialogue will be discovered to be forever unsatisfactory.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
Listeners who love this music should experience it in its dramatic context; afterwards hearing the music shorn of dialogue will be discovered to be forever unsatisfactory.