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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Overture: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op 21 (1826) [12:13]
A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Incidental Music, Op 61(1842) [42:56]
Ceri-lyn Cissione, Alexander Knox, Frankie Wakefield (actors); Monteverdi Choir; London Symphony Orchestra/Sir John Eliot Gardiner
rec. live 16 February 2016, The Barbican, London. DSD 128fs
English texts included
Package comprises:
1.Blu-ray audio disc: 5.1 DTS-HD MA 24bit/192KHz; 2.0 LPCM 24bit/192KHz
Also contains bonus HD video footage of the full concert including Mendelssohn: Symphony No 1
2. SACD Hybrid disc. Standard CD audio; high density stereo (2.0) and surround (5.1) tracks
LSO LIVE LSO0795 SACD/BD-A [55:09]

This release is, I think, the penultimate release in Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s Mendelssohn series for LSO Live. Previous instalments have comprised the Third Symphony in a performance dating from January 2014 (review), the ‘Reformation’ Symphony, also a 2014 performance (review), and the First and ‘Italian symphonies in performances from 2016 and 2014 respectively (review). Incidentally, the present release includes, as part of the Blu-ray option, a film of the whole February 2016 concert which includes that performance of the First Symphony. I presume the Second Symphony, Lobgesang will follow in due course. This is the first recording in the series that I’ve heard.

Mendelssohn wrote his A Midsummer Night’s Dream overture as a stand-alone concert item. It was not until 1842 that he was invited to return to the subject when the King of Prussia commissioned him to compose incidental music for a performance of the play – the Overture was to precede that performance. Notwithstanding the gap of some 16 years Mendelssohn recaptured the spirit of the Overture in a seemingly effortless fashion and the results are magical. In this performance we don’t hear the complete incidental music: we learn from Lindsay Kemp’s notes that Gardiner and the LSO devised a version which focussed on the world of the fairies and the human lovers, Hermia and Lysander. Three young actors speak extracts from the play, each of them taking more than one role. They bring the poetry vividly to life even when you’re just hearing them speak – it’s even more apparent when you watch them on the film of the performance. The spoken and sung texts are included in the booklet but the actors’ diction is admirably clear.

The musical performance is very fine indeed. The celebrated Overture is extremely well done, the opening gossamer light. In the livelier passages I love the touches of what I’d term “sophisticated rusticity” that Gardiner draws out of the brass and low woodwind. I also relished the use of string portamento. In short, it’s a super performance full of light and shade and you appreciate what a fine scene-setter this piece is. Incidentally, Lindsay Kemp refers to that magical sequence of four chords that open the overture “which descend on the music at key moments, changing the mood like a spell.” How true that is but the analogy of a spell is even more relevant when you hear the chords at certain junctures during the incidental music. In particular, the four chords sound right at the very end as Puck declaims the play’s closing lines and so the spell comes to an end.

Highlights of the incidental music include a quicksilver, nimble Scherzo; here the LSO woodwinds really sparkle. The Nocturne is suave and restful – lovely horn playing hereabouts – and the music makes even more of a mark when it segues straight from the moment in the play where Puck has put Hermia to sleep. The famous Wedding March is joyful and buoyant. The closing minutes, with fine contributions from singers, actors and orchestra as the material of the Overture is reprised, are winningly done here.

The small vocal contributions are expertly done by a contingent of twelve ladies – 7 sopranos and 5 altos – from the Monteverdi Choir.

This is an enchanting experience, which I enjoyed greatly. I listened mostly to the BD-A disc, using the 2.0 LPCM stereo option and I got excellent results. I sampled the SACD as well and, to be honest, I found the results just as satisfying. Both discs give excellent definition.

Where the Blu-ray comes into its own, however, is with the option to watch the HD video of the full concert, including the First Symphony. That in itself is very interesting. To my surprise, Gardiner addresses the audience before playing the symphony and explains to them, in a nice informal way, that when the twenty-year-old Mendelssohn came to London and performed the symphony he was very dissatisfied with the Minuet. As a consequence, he orchestrated the Scherzo from his Octet as an alternative. Here Gardiner plays both movements – the Scherzo is placed third and the Minuet follows it. It’s hard to see why the composer took such exception to his Minuet though, pressed to make a choice, my preference is for the sparkling Scherzo. Interestingly, Gardiner has his violins – divided, of course – and violas standing up to play the symphony though they sit for the Midsummer Night’s Dream half of the concert.

For that second half the Barbican stage is lit with atmospheric blue lights. The actors deliver their lines from various spots on the stage and the singers are placed to the conductor’s right on the edge of the platform behind the second violins. I found myself drawn into the performance even more than was the case with the superb audio option. I’m delighted that LSO Live offer both experiences to those with Blu-ray players.

This is a most attractive package. On the evidence of this performance and the enthusiasm of my colleagues’ reviews it’s clear that I must catch up with previous instalments in this Mendelssohn cycle,

John Quinn

Previous review: Simon Thompson



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