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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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa