Mendelssohn: A Midsummer Night's Dream (CD review)

Complete incidental music, with spoken text and melodramas in English. Jenny Wollerman and Pepe Becker, sopranos; Varsity Voices, Nota Bene; James Judd, New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.570794.

Whether you will like this new budget-priced Naxos disc by maestro James Judd and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra may depend on several things: How happy you are with the recording you already own, how curious or adventurous you are about buying new recordings of music you already have, and how you feel about hearing some of Shakespeare's text spoken along with the music.

As you no doubt know, Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) began work on his music for Shakespeare's play A Midsummer Night's Dream when he was still in his teens, composing the overture in 1826 when he was only seventeen. Mendelssohn completed the work sixteen years later, in 1841, while in the employ of the Prussian court. The King suggested he compose complete incidental music for a new production of the play, and Mendelssohn complied.

Judd's approach to the music is pretty straightforward, not at all objectionable but losing some of the airy, mercurial magic we find in performances by Otto Klemperer (EMI) and Andre Previn (EMI). The music, of course, is highly programmatic, following at least a few of Shakespeare's plot ideas and characters, most notably Puck, Bottom, the Duke, and the fairies. Judd judiciously chooses his tempo changes to reflect the state of the story and characters, if sometimes slowing things to a crawl. It is not an altogether inappropriate or unpleasant interpretation, just a bit more matter-of-fact than I've heard.

The Scherzo, for example, is bright and cheery, and rolls merrily along. The song "Ye Spotted Snakes" comes off wonderfully, too, helped by sopranos Jenny Wollerman and Pepe Becker, who sing delightfully. No, there is nothing wrong with the performance; Judd may occasionally exaggerate the music's flow, but he always does so for maximum dramatic effect.

My only quibbles are few: I found the spoken Shakespeare excerpts intrusive, inserted as they are between and during the main segments of music. Not that the actors aren't fine in their speaking roles, but I'd rather have just heard the traditional selections played without interruption. Or maybe that's just what I'm used to. In addition, I thought the "Wedding March" could have used more pizzazz and the "Dance of the Clowns" more jollity. That said, it's certainly pleasing to find all of the composer's incidental music in one place, and many listeners may welcome the spoken text as well.

The Naxos sound, recorded between 2003 and 2009 (the music recorded first, then the vocals, and finally the speech), is good without being in any way outstanding. It is somewhat two-dimensional, without much depth; lacks ultimate dynamics, sparkle, and transparency; and presents the voices too close up. Yet the sound does its job warmly, smoothly, and efficiently; while it may not wow the audiophile, it is hardly a cause for concern. What's more, because this is a prestige product from Naxos, they enclose the jewel box in an attractive cardboard slipcover.

JJP

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa