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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Overture & Incidental Music Op. 61 [48:05]
Fanny MENDELSSOHN (1805-1847)
May Night, Op. 9 No. 6 [2:21]
Distance, Op. 9 No. 2 [2:56]
Gondola Song, Op. 1 No. 6 [3:13]
Anna Lucia Richter (soprano), Barbara Kozelj (alto)
Pro Musica Women’s Choir Nyíregyháza
Budapest Festival Orchestra/Iván Fischer
rec. Budapest, 2015

It is well known that Felix Mendelssohn composed the overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream (or rather Ein Sommernachtstraum, as translated by August Wilhelm Schlegel) when he was only seventeen. It might be less known that only in 1843 did he return to: he extended it to incidental music commissioned by Frederick William IV of Prussia for a performance of the play at the Neue Palais in Potsdam. Hearing it there for the very first time must have been among those special moments in music history one would have been desirous of being a part of. The Budapest Festival Orchestra’s approach to rendering pieces in a way that “feels unexpected and surprising as if it was played for the very first time” might be the closest we could get to this experience today.

I played the piano since age seven, so an interest and appreciation of classical music has always shaped part of my life. However, it was listening to Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream that left me spellbound and opened up before my ears an entirely new world, and lay the foundations for an ever-increasing appreciation of orchestral music. To this day, Mendelssohn’s fascinating composition remains very dear to me. I remember purchasing a recording conducted by Kurt Masur with the Gewandhaus Orchester and Rundfunkchor Leipzig in the Mendelssohn-Haus museum in Leipzig some years ago. This city has played a most important part in the music history of western music and arguably was the musical capital of Europe in the 19th century. It was here that Mendelssohn – in addition to conducting the famous Gewandhaus Orchestra and bringing Bach back to memory – founded his music conservatoire in 1843, the year of the production of his incidental music to a Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Iván Fischer, in turn, founded the Budapest Festival Orchestra in 1983. It is renowned for approaching pieces by “taking the risk, the initiative and freedom to do things differently”. This unorthodox undertaking has so far won them two Gramophone Awards and a Grammy nomination. Fischer, also Music Director of the Konzerthausorchester Berlin, has recently gained a reputation as a composer in his own right. The fact that the listener will be in for something (completely) different with this recording becomes clear from the very outset. The overture is overall very slow and takes about two minutes longer than on average recordings. When we get to the foreshadowing of the clowns’ song, the ass’s hew-haw is quite overemphasised, and deliberately breaks the flow of the music. A few bars on, there appears what seems to be an elephantastic noise, the intention behind which I have not quite figured out yet. Though interesting, a little less freedom might not have been too bad a thing here. These surprising details run through the whole recording. The tempi are, more often than not, quite unexpected and challenging for the accustomed listener. The Pro Musica women’s choir (founded in 1986) is part of the east-Hungarian music school Cantemus, one of the last places where the singers are taught according to Kodály’s principles. The sound-world they create fits the mischievous orchestral sound very well. Both Anna Lucia Richter and Barbara Kozelj add a special zest with their rather more normal rendering, thus creating and interesting yet balanced mixture.

The disc also comprises three pieces by Fanny Hensel, Felix’s beloved sister. These are very well executed, but given the short running time of the disc, one would have loved to hear some more of these gems included here. The booklet in English, German and French reproduces the German and English words to A Midsummer Night’s Dream as well as the English translations to the German poems that Fanny set to music. The notes provide thorough information about the artists and give a good account of both the creation of the overture to Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and the story behind the incidental music. The paragraph on Fanny elaborates on her difficult standing as a woman composer and then focuses on her three songs.

Should you be curious to learn what a different approach to such familiar a piece sounds like, this is the disc to buy, for there will hardly be another unorthodox recording out there that even comes near the quality of execution we find here. The same applies if you wish to have a first-time experience, be it authentic or not. However, if you prefer the conventional approach there might likely be too much hew-haws and fairy onomatopoeia in here. Decide for yourself but bear in mind that Iván Fischer made this recording primarily for fairies. They might well sense and appreciate all the slightly different nuances the orchestra so much elaborates on, but then it is hard to tell how fairy music could ever be rendered adequately by humans at all. I wonder whether this is what Mendelssohn thought his music should sound like, and what it really sounded like on that October day in 1843 when the fairies first listened to it.

Maximilian Burgdörfer



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