Mendelssohn's incidental score to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's
, while wonderful, poses problems of presentation. Some movements
are little more than snippets, musical bridges between bits of dialogue,
and aren't rounded off musically. Elsewhere, tones or chords meant
to be sustained under speech can sound pointless in its absence. The
standard concert suite of four self-contained movements evades the
problem, but misses out on some delightful music, particularly the
two songs for women's voices.
On records, various solutions have been tried. Some conductors, like
Previn (EMI), simply play the music unapologetically, fragments and
all; one such issue, under Frühbeck de Burgos (Decca), originally
included the omitted dialogues on a leaflet, so you could "speak along"
at home, I suppose. Other editions try a single narrator for the various
dialogues, including a stilted Inga Swenson (Leinsdorf/RCA) and a
stylish, assured Kenneth Branagh (Abbado/Sony). At the far extreme,
two-disc albums under Tate (EMI) and Laredo (Nimbus) incorporate the
music into fully cast readings of the play!
The Naxos production compromises, assigning necessary and appropriate
excerpts from the play to a reduced company of actors. Plotwise, the
selection inevitably favours the Oberon-Titania conflict and the Mechanicals;
the lovers' quadrangle is judiciously represented, in order to set
up the Nocturne
, but remains too perfunctory a sketch. The
dramatic performance, directed by troupe member David Timson, is excellent,
with the actors bringing off their multiple impersonations in a variety
of accents, timbres, and inflections.
The music is also well served. In the Overture, James Judd maintains
a light touch at a brisk tempo, and draws transparent sounds from
the fluttering strings. The sustained ophicleide tones - probably
played on a tuba, as is customary - inject an ominous note into the
development; the coda is a serene, fulfilling resolution.
Save in a spacious Nocturne
, Judd maintains a similar motility
and lightness throughout the performance, to the point of running
sections together in You spotted snakes
. This is a small matter,
however, in a performance that draws such fetching contrasts of timbre
and texture, and so vividly projects the sheer theatre of the piece.
The two songs are nicely turned. The women's chorus, warm in tone
and clear in texture, is ideal. The soloists, Jenny Wollerman and
Pepe Becker, have markedly distinct timbres - Becker's voice is darker
and more "mezzo" - yet they mesh beautifully in duet. If you want
to nitpick, Becker's straight-toned phrase endings betray her Early
Considering the sessions' spread-out scheduling, the recorded sound
is quite good - the winds, especially, register with striking depth
and warmth. The speaking voices, however, sound quite closely balanced
over loudspeakers - there's no problem over headphones - making it
hard to find a good, consistent volume setting. The full-throated
horn quartet in the Nocturne
causes some congestion, and the
Wedding March sounds oddly compressed, less "present" than the items
preceding it. The pronounced directional effects are pleasing in the
Overture and women's choruses, distinctly "placing" sections of strings
and groups of singers, but smacks of ping-pong stereo in Oberon and
Puck's first dialogue.
The slipcase packaging is unusually de luxe
for a budget line.
Texts are not provided, but are available on the Naxos website.
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and
e also review by Ralph