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 Recording of the Week  John Eliot Gardiner conducts Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream

In 1842, sixteen years after the 17-year-old Mendelssohn had composed an overture based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he was invited by the King of Prussia to write incidental music for a production of the play, and his response was a suite of music comprising various instrumental numbers, songs, and spoken melodramas.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner
Sir John Eliot Gardiner

For his new recording with the London Symphony Orchestra, John Eliot Gardiner has fashioned his own version of the suite, reducing the amount of Shakespearean text to its bare essentials in order to focus on Mendelssohn's music. While this does mean that a few bits are excluded from this recording (such as some of the longer spoken melodramas and other tiny snippets such as Pyramus's Funeral March from Act Five), all the major musical numbers are present and correct, including the Scherzo, Nocturne, and famous Wedding March, so it definitely still feels like a full representation of Mendelssohn's sparkling music.

And sparkle it does: there's a real lightness of touch in the Overture, and I was delighted with the way that Gardiner manages to make familiar music sound fresh. He doesn't shy away from some of Mendelssohn's more imaginative touches of orchestration, playing up moments such as the fortissimo horn blasts that come crashing into an otherwise pianissimo context, and the moment where Mendelssohn employs huge leaps in the violins and clarinets to represent the braying of Bottom (who has been given an ass's head by Puck) is pleasingly done.

Speaking of keeping familiar music fresh, I wouldn’t have thought there was anything Gardiner could have done to invigorate that most familiar of tunes, namely the Wedding March, and yet that’s exactly what he does: by experimenting with accents and chord weight he amazingly made me feel as if I had been listening to this music for the very first time. Quite an achievement!

The Scherzo is almost dangerously fast, with some astonishing woodwind playing conveying more than ever the fleet-of-foot landscape of fairies and forests. With its barrage of semiquavers, it presents some challenges in terms of tonguing and clarity of articulation, and on more than one occasion I have heard clarinet players “cheat” by slurring the first two semiquavers of the bar, but not here: every articulation mark is exactly as it should be. No less impressive is the apparently superhuman breath control of principal flautist, Gareth Davies, especially at the end of the movement where he seems to be able to keep going forever with one endless phrase. By contrast, the Nocturne is sublimely still and peaceful, with an elegant, poised solo from principal horn, Timothy Jones, beautifully integrated with some mellifluous bassoons.

Of course Gardiner is known for his excellence in choral music, and so it’s not unexpected that one of the highlights should be the Song with Chorus, You spotted snakes, which the fairies sing for Titania. The refrain of “So, good night, with lullaby”, sung here by the Ladies of the Monteverdi Choir, must be some of the most charming singing I can remember hearing (they return in equally enchanting form in the final chorus, where they most certainly do “sing and dance it trippingly”).

I should also say a word about the three actors involved; having their spoken contributions really adds to the quality of the overall performance, and shows how extraordinary Mendelssohn’s music is at highlighting and enhancing Shakespeare’s text. The final bars, where Alexander Knox as Puck recites his celebrated closing speech “If we shadows have offended” over the same chords that began the overture, are lovely, and bring the whole thing fittingly full circle.

If you happen to own a blu-ray player, then not only can you listen to everything in blu-ray audio, but as an added bonus you can actually watch the entire Barbican concert from which this performance is taken, including a complete performance of Symphony No. 1 from an earlier LSO Live release – a bargain indeed!

Mendelssohn: A Midsummer Night's Dream - Overture & Incidental music

Monteverdi Choir, London Symphony Orchestra, John Eliot Gardiner

Available Formats: SACD + Blu-ray, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC, Hi-Res+ FLAC