Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
A Midsummer Night's Dream, play with full musical score [144:23]
BBC Women's Chorus; BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Malcolm Sargent
Michael Benthall (theatre director)
rec. 23, 26 July (orchestra); 11, 16–20 August 1954 (actors), EMI Abbey Road Studio No. 1, London.
PRISTINE AUDIO PACO133 [70:10 + 74:13]

In mid-1954 EMI recorded in distinct sessions – music in July, the actors in August – Mendelssohn’s complete incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream contextualized within a reasonably complete edition of the play itself. This was the Old Vic performance that toured America later in the year and the LP was doubtless excellent promotion when it was issued there on RCA Victor.

Act IV Scene 2 was omitted and, as Mark Obert-Thorn notes, there were other small cuts but otherwise the play is majorly complete. Even at the time this must have seemed a rather Edwardian way of presenting things – either play or music – but the distance of time has lent a certain enchantment to things and, in any case, it’s always good to be reminded that Malcolm Sargent’s directorship of the BBC Symphony managed to ensure excellent corporate discipline and featured in particular fine horns and a personality-conscious wind section.

There are 16 tracks over the two CDs with each track corresponding to one scene or to an extended musical excerpt or other set-piece. Those who are only familiar with the standard excerpted suite will enjoy the musical and theatrical expansion involved in listening to the present recording.

The cast is headed by Robert Helpmann as Oberon and Moira Shearer as Titania, both famous in their own right but whose film immortality was enshrined in The Red Shoes and Tales of Hoffmann. Stanley Holloway, admired on both sides of the Atlantic, was Bottom and Patrick Macnee takes the part of Demetrius; he was later famous as John Steed in The Avengers.

One can hear faint traces of LP detritus – the pressings used were two RCA Victors of considerable immediacy – that does nothing to limit admiration at the deftness of articulation in the vividly conveyed Overture where the BBC’s lower strings anchor things well and where the string choirs are astutely balanced.

The winds burble an introduction to Act I scene 2’s ‘Is all our company here?’ whilst the flute principal shines in the famous Scherzo, which is allotted its own track. The winds provide deft backing behind the actors in Act II Scene 1 and EMI’s production team did a fine job at balancing the orchestra and voices in ‘You spotted snakes’ whilst the lower brass have a fine time of it in the ‘I’ll lead you’ scene in Act III scene 1. The BBC horns are characteristically fine in the Act III Intermezzo and their confreres in the string section, often thought to be the weak link in the BBC SO at this time, prove supple and highly effective.

Thus, the Wedding March becomes nicely contextualized in a recording such as this and the Dance of the Clowns, though rhythmically vital, is not over-pressed or over-accented, though arguably it could be a touch more convivial.

The actors embody the various British theatrical traditions of the time, and include in Helpmann and Shearer artists from a specifically dance background. This is, vocally, theatre pre-Osborne and a country pre-Suez but under the director Michael Benthall’s direction things remain consonant and often charming.

Jonathan Woolf

Previous review: Rob Barnett

Robert Helpmann (Oberon)
Moira Shearer (Titania)
Philip Guard (Puck)
Jocelyn Britten (Peaseblossom)
Sheila Wright (Mustardseed)
Joan King (Moth)
Tania d’Avray (Cobweb)
Anthony Nicholls (Theseus)
Margaret Courtenay (Hippolyta)
John Dearth (Egeus)
Anne Walford (Hermia)
Terence Longdon (Lysander)
Joan Benham (Helena)
Patrick Macnee (Demetrius)
Peter Johnson (Philostrate)
Eliot Makeham (Peter Quince)
Michael Redington (Snug)
Stanley Holloway (Bottom)
Philip Locke (Flute)
Norman Rossington (Snout)
John Warner (Starveling)
Elizabeth Wade (Singer 1)
Suzanne Steele (Singer 2)
Anne Wilson (Singer 3)