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

Also, Hebrides Overture. Philippe Herreweghe, Orchestre de Champs-Elysees and Choeur de la Chapelle Royale & Collegium Vocale Gent. Harmonia Muni Gold HMG 501502.

As practically every classical music fan (and a whole lot of others as well) knows, German composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) started working on his music for Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream when he was but a teen, composing the Overture in 1826 when he was only seventeen. But he wasn’t in any hurry, completing the work sixteen years later in 1841 while employed by the Prussian court. The King suggested he compose some complete incidental music for a new production of the Shakespeare play, and Mendelssohn complied, already having written the opening tune.

Maestro Philippe Herreweghe provides on the album all of the most-popular numbers from the work, without some of the smaller, less-familiar connecting music. It’s pretty much what most listeners expect. Moreover, Herreweghe’s approach to the score comes across as quite comforting, if not so airy, mercurial, or magic as the performances by Otto Klemperer (EMI) and Andre Previn (EMI). The music, of course, is highly programmatic, representing Shakespeare’s major plot ideas and characters, most notably Puck, Bottom, the Duke, and the fairies.

Herreweghe offers us a stately, sedate introduction to the Overture, and then opens it up with a fairly lively flurry of fairies and pixie dust. After that, the whole movement settles down into a more traditional approach, sweet and characterful. It’s indicative of the kind of performance we’re going to get, one filled with color and romance, yet refined and elegant, too.

Likewise, the Scherzo displays plenty of bounce; the March of the Elves offers a welcome rhythmic charm; and “Ye Spotted Snakes” is suitably enchanting, even sung in German rather the more commonly heard English of Shakespeare.

One minor disconcerting moment comes with the Nocturne, which Herreweghe takes at a brisker pace than one usually hears. While it perhaps matches the rest of his zesty reading of contrasts, it doesn’t entirely convey the gentle, enchanting atmosphere the scene deserves.

Fortunately, the Wedding March brings us back to the regal festivities of the play with a telling gaiety. The concluding tunes also go comfortably well, with the choral-orchestral Finale bringing us full circle to echoes of the Overture’s melodies.

The album concludes with a coupling of Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, also known as Fingal’s Cave (1830-32). Herreweghe’s rendering seems a bit lightweight for the craggy countenance of the coastline it describes. It also seems a little too solemn for my liking, losing some of the strangeness and “Scottishness” the composer said he encountered upon visiting the site of the music’s inspiration. I suppose you could say it’s rather a Gallic vision of the Scottish landscape.

The sound, which Harmonia Mundi recorded in 1994 and have reissued here in their “Gold” series, is warm and resonant and a tad heavy, perhaps not ideally suited for audiophile listening but fitting nicely with the sort of Romantic idealism and adventure Herreweghe wants to communicate. The sound, like the performance, is at once cozy and intimate yet glittering and extrovert. You’ll find a golden glow around the sonics that is quite alluring, with reasonably wide dynamics and a smooth execution.

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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa