Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
A Midsummer Night's Dream: complete incidental music (1826/1841) [76:44]
Jenny Wollerman, Pepe Becker (sopranos)
Tom Mison (speaker) - Oberon, Snout, Moth
Adrian Grove (speaker) - Puck, Philostrate
Emily Raymond (speaker) - Titania, Hermia
Anne-Marie Piazza (speaker) - Helena, Fairy, Hippolyta, Peaseblossom
Gunnar Cauthery (speaker) - Demetrius, Quince, Mustard-seed
Peter Kenney (speaker) - Lysander, Flute, Cobweb
David Timson (speaker) - Theseus, Bottom
Varsity Voices; Nota Bene
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/James Judd
rec. Wellington Town Hall, September 2003 (orchestral music), August 2007 (vocal music); Motivation Sound Studios, September 2009 (speech)
NAXOS 8.570794 [76:44]

Mendelssohn's incidental score to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, 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 Musicke background.
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 journalist. 

The music is well served … a light touch at a brisk tempo and transparent sounds ... serene and fulfilling. 


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See also review by Ralph Moore