The Words Get in the Way of This New Rendition of Mendelssohn's 'Midsummer Night's Dream'

John Eliot Gardiner's rendition of Mendelssohn’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ offers rich sound, but is marred by the narration

Amir Mandel
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Felix Mendelssohn.
Felix Mendelssohn.
Amir Mandel

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-47) composed music for Shakespeare’s comedy “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” twice. In 1826 he wrote a concert overture, Op. 21, a brilliant work that abounds with sparkling moments. That short work reflects the abilities of the 17-year-old Mendelssohn, who was already a skilled composer with a teeming imagination. In 1842, King Frederick William IV of Prussia commissioned him to write incidental music for the play. Mendelssohn responded by writing a more comprehensive work, Op. 62, which incorporated the overture. The long work also includes a movement that has become worn with frequent playing: the “Wedding March.”

A recently released album (LSO 0795) contains both works, first the overture, then the incidental music. The conductor is John Eliot Gardiner, who is best known for his renditions of early music, though he has also recorded numerous works from the Romantic period, in most cases with instruments of the time. On this occasion, Gardiner is conducting not one of his regular period-instrument ensembles, but the London Symphony Orchestra.

Clean and transparent

The result is particularly interesting in terms of the orchestral sound: The veteran orchestra, playing “modern” instruments, sounds very much like one of Gardiner’s ensembles. The orchestral tone is clean and transparent, with little vibrato in the strings and a general balance that highlights the wind instruments, rendering the color slightly roughhewn and quite intriguing. The rhythms are quite rapid, with short sentences rolling in quick succession and creating a sweeping flow. The question of whether this is a “period” orchestra or not becomes moot, as a central purpose of the use of “period” instruments – the creation of lucidity and balance – is also achieved by this ensemble of contemporary instruments.

Unfortunately, however, Gardiner has chosen a versionof the work that has a spoken text delivered by actors. Claudio Abbado also used this version in a 1996 recording, but Frans Bruggen made do without the narration in an excellent recording with the Orchestra of the 18th Century, playing period instruments. The text interferes with the musical sequence and detracts from the completeness of the work as music. At certain points, the placing of the text causes the music to lose its independence and sound like an illustration for the words just spoken. It’s difficult to enjoy Mendelssohn’s writing fully in these conditions.

To my mind, Mendelssohn’s sparkling music intersects beautifully with Shakespeare’s rolling text, but works better when each art operates in its own space, not when the music acts as an overly direct illustration and decoration for the words. Other listeners will argue, and not without logic, that Gardiner’s version is faithful to the work’s categorization as “incidental music.”

Gardiner avails himself of “his” choir, the Monteverdi Choir, in the recording, and its singing is, as always, top-notch. The quality of the live-concert recording is also of a high order, offering a richly present sound. The performance of the stand-alone overture is truly brilliant, and the incidental music, too, despite my misgivings about the version chosen, contains many lovely moments thanks to the excellent instrumental work. If you don’t shut your ears at the relevant spot, even the “Wedding March” sounds new and fresh.