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REVIEW Plain text for smartphones & printers


Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
A Midsummer Night's Dream, play with full musical score [144:23]
BBC Women's Chorus; BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Malcolm Sargent
Michael Benthall (theatre director)
rec. 23, 26 July (orchestra); 11, 16–20 August 1954 (actors), EMI Abbey Road Studio No. 1, London.
PRISTINE AUDIO PACO133 [70:10 + 74:13]

A number of privately or commercially recorded productions of plays with music or novels adapted as plays have emerged. The ones that leap to mind have usually emanated from radio stations. BBC Radio 3 has done lots of them over the years: The Tempest (music: David Cain), Folkeraadet (Delius), Flecker's Hassan (Delius), Moby Dick (Anthony Hopkins), The Gulliver series (Humphrey Searle) and Brecht's Schweik in the Second World War (Hanns Eisler). More usually we come to know such music in the form of suites of movements shorn free from the spoken or written word.

This 2-CD set is not a radio offshoot. Its origins are in the Old Vic's 1954 London stage production. Mark Obert-Thorn, Producer and Audio Restoration Engineer, whose reassuring logo appears on the case cover, has achieved for Pristine a cleanly set transfer from two American sets: RCA Victor LM-6115. The English version was on HMV ALP 1262/4.

As for the cast it boasts two dancer-actors Robert Helpmann, famous as the child-catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes; the latter to music by Brian Easdale. Patrick Macnee went on to fame and fortune as John Steed in The Avengers. Stanley Holloway became enduringly well-known for his humorous monologues and as Dustman Doolittle in the film of My Fair Lady. Norman Rossington was a fixture in the "Carry On" films and usually as a rough-edged private soldier in UK films and television. The cast is a strong and very British one.

The recording wears its sixty years with a light step if you relish the English language as it stood post-WWII and trailing clouds of glory from the 1930s. This is reported as the full text of the play minus Act IV Scene 2 and a scattering of minor cuts here and there. Both music and play were recorded in the Abbey Road studios but at different times. The Overture and Scherzo and other familiar movements are allocated their own tracks across these two amply packed discs.

Sargent's BBCSO take the listener's attention immediately with a moth-flitting Overture. Its sleepy, quiet paragraphs at the end seem to drift off into Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade. Sargent is excellent in this overture and Mendelssohn's music is magical - such a pity he was not commissioned to write music for The Tempest. Mendelssohn's crown slips only in relation to the Wedding March which always takes on an overstuffed Victorian air. Invincibly attractive in its own terms it is a poor stylistic fit in a place where fairy trumpeters and flutes would have been more consonant. Back to inspired form for the Act III Intermezzo which is all sweetness. There's a superb sense of stage distance and height in Scene 2. A coaxed and cozened Notturno has eloquent work for the French horn benches.

As ever with Pristine this set is available in a wide variety of downloaded formats. The 2 CDs are impeccably housed in a single-width case. Documentation is reduced to the barest essentials - one side (folded) of the back of an otherwise blank leaflet.

No doubt there are Shakespeare students who will find this set rewarding museum evidence of times and tides in production styles. Every word is presented with flighty precision but what strikes this listener is how naturalistically the music blends with the words. Try CD1 tr. 8: "Are we all met?". The women's choir in You spotted snakes may well seem a little too matronly precise but if you surrender to the style there are melting charms here.

Be clear, this two and a half hour experience is mostly the acted play. Some of the tracks are of music only while others have the music blended with, in and over the words. It's an organic meld which amounts to a virtuoso rendition of the words and music.

Rob Barnett


Robert Helpmann (Oberon)
Moira Shearer (Titania)
Philip Guard (Puck)
Jocelyn Britten (Peaseblossom)
Sheila Wright (Mustardseed)
Joan King (Moth)
Tania d’Avray (Cobweb)
Anthony Nicholls (Theseus)
Margaret Courtenay (Hippolyta)
John Dearth (Egeus)
Anne Walford (Hermia)
Terence Longdon (Lysander)
Joan Benham (Helena)
Patrick Macnee (Demetrius)
Peter Johnson (Philostrate)
Eliot Makeham (Peter Quince)
Michael Redington (Snug)
Stanley Holloway (Bottom)
Philip Locke (Flute)
Norman Rossington (Snout)
John Warner (Starveling)
Elizabeth Wade (Singer 1)
Suzanne Steele (Singer 2)
Anne Wilson (Singer 3)



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