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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Overture [12:13]
Incidental Music (extracts) [42:56]
Monteverdi Choir
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir John Eliot Gardiner
rec. live, Barbican, London, 16 February 2016
BD-A & Hybrid SACD included in the package
LSO LIVE LSO0795 [55:09]

This isn't a complete set of Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The selection on the disc was made by Gardiner for a special concert with the LSO on 16th February 2016, in which he, the orchestra and the Monteverdi Choir collaborated with some recent acting graduates of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. The orchestra is undoubtedly centre-stage, but the actors give us a gentle semi-staging of some of the extracts for which the music was written.  It’s very light-touch, and the spoken excerpts are included on the audio disc to add to the atmosphere. The printed texts are included in the booklet, too. I rather liked it, not least because it means that some of the music makes more sense when you hear it interspersed with the text for which it was intended.

Most importantly, the orchestra sound great, and that’s the real reason people will pick this up, the acting being only a nice bonus. The Overture sounds marvellous, the vibratoless strings dancing over the fairy music as though barely touching it. The four chords sound repeatedly magical, the big tutti passages sound urbane and busy, and there is even a lovely glissando to accentuate Bottom’s braying. That same dancing lightness makes for a Scherzo that sounds absolutely natural.  Sparse and gossamer-light, it’s the sort of playing that has you having to remind yourself that this is a full scale symphony orchestra, not some niche period band. The strings are wonderfully suggestive when Oberon drips the love-juice into Titania’s eyes, and they increase the tension during the appassionato section that depicts the lovers’ distressed chaos. The Nocturne, surely one of Mendelssohn’s loveliest creations, sounds utterly magical, the horns crowning the sound with the most tremendous beauty. Only the Wedding March feels a little cursory, a tad rushed, Gardiner pushing through it with a bit too much determination. Thankfully, however, the finale recovers some of the magic, with a gorgeous wind-down on the strings as Oberon casts his final spell. There isn’t much singing, but the Monteverdi Choir do their bit very successfully, and the two major numbers use solo singers drawn from the choir.

We’ve come to expect a bonus audio BD in Gardiner’s Mendelssohn cycle, but this one gets back to the specialness of the series’ first instalment because the BD also includes a film of the concert so that you can see the actors as well as hear them. That really helps the project to come to life, and it’s a good bonus.  Included also is the film of Symphony No. 1, released in 2016 in the cycle’s previous instalment, and recorded on the same evening. The film is in 2.0 stereo only, but you also get the surround BD Audio of the whole Midsummer Night’s Dream selection.

There are omissions on this performance, however, mostly coming from the music for the Mechanicals, and that means that this can’t be a first choice for anyone looking for the complete set of incidental music. For some, the competition will be headed by the LSO’s previous version, their classic 1976 disc with Andre Previn. An even finer alternative, however, comes from Seiji Ozawa’s Boston disc, which carries not only excellent orchestral playing and DG’s finest digital sound, but also two star singers (Kathleen Battle and Frederica von Stade) and a special bonus in a condensed narration spoken by the (unbeatable) Judi Dench. When you’re faced with a voice like hers, that’s an even finer alternative to the multi-actor spectacle on offer from Gardiner.

Simon Thompson



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