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Mendelssohn: A Midsummer Night’s Dream - Thomas Dausgaard

Mendelssohn: A Midsummer Night’s Dream - Thomas Dausgaard

BIS  BIS-2166 SACD

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Mendelssohn:
Das Märchen von der schönen Melusine (The Fair Melusine), Concert Overture No.4, Op.32
Ein Sommernachtstraum (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), overture & incidental music to the play by Shakespeare, Op.61
Die Hebriden (The Hebrides), Concert Overture No.2, Op.26

Camilla Tilling & Magdalena Risberg (sopranos)
Swedish Radio Choir
Swedish Chamber Orchestra
Thomas Dausgaard (conductor)


Following a series of acclaimed recordings of 19th-century music including complete cycles of the symphonies by Schubert and Schumann, Thomas Dausgaard and his Swedish Chamber Orchestra turn to Felix Mendelssohn. The team’s latest offering unites three of the composer's four celebrated concert overtures, written between 1826 and 1835 and setting new standards for this emerging genre: Mendelssohn’s overtures are also tone poems, combining a Classical conception with Romantic expressivity. The earliest of the three – A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Mendelssohn composed at the age of seventeen, and his sister Fanny later remarked how Shakespeare's play had been a constant presence at their home, and ‘how at various ages we had read all the different roles, from Peaseblossom to Hermia and Helena…’ The overture immediately became one of Mendelssohn’s signature pieces, and seventeen years later he returned to it, composing additional incidental music for a stage production of the play. Written for soloists, women's choir and orchestra, the complete Midsummer Night score is included here.

The disc opens with the last of the four overtures to be composed, however: The Fair Melusine, which Mendelssohn wrote after having heard an opera based on the old French tale of the water spirit Mélusine and her sad fate. Actively disliking the opera, Mendelssohn was provoked into his own musical setting of the subject matter in the form of a concert overture. Water – and its depiction in music – also plays an important role in The Hebrides, the closing work on the present recording. Inspired by the poems by Ossian – which captured the imagination of an entire generation at the beginning of the Romantic era – Mendelssohn visited Scotland and the Hebrides in 1829, and already during this trip he sent a postcard to his family, with the overture's famous opening written down in a four-part setting.

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Recorded in September 2014 at the Concert Hall of the School of Music, Theatre and Art, Örebro, Sweden, 24/96

Recording producer: Marion Schwebel (Take5 Music Production)

Sound engineer: Thore Brinkmann (Take5 Music Production)

Recording equipment: BIS’s recording teams use microphones from Neumann and Schoeps, audio electronics from RME, Lake People and DirectOut, MADI optical cabling technology, monitoring equipment from B&W, STAX and Sennheiser, and Sequoia and Pyramix digital audio workstations.

Post-production: Editing: Marion Schwebel
Mixing: Marion Schwebel, Thore Brinkmann

Executive producer: Robert Suff
Reviews (1)
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Review by Adrian Quanjer - October 17, 2015

Whoever wants a fresh and thoroughly joyous account of Mendelssohn’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’, superbly played and recorded, should look no further.

Mendelssohn grew up in a well-educated and well to do family. Music and literature were held in high regard. Young Felix became inspired by Shakespeare to the point of promising his sister Fanny to compose music for ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. And so he did. Twice, to be precise. First an Overture Op. 21, when he was only 17 years old.

“It is supposed that one July evening Mendelssohn was outdoors absorbing the midsummer night’s air in the family garden and was struck with inspiration to write a piece honoring Shakespeare’s comedy of the season” (Naomi Droge, 23 July 2009).

Followed, in 1842, by the ‘Incidental Music to the Play by William Shakespeare’, Op. 61, commissioned by the King of Prussia.

Recordings of complete sets are rare. Most of the time one gets no more than the Overture followed by excerpts of the Incidental Music. On this disk, however, we do get the complete set, that is: The Overture and the full Incidental Music. Plus, as an extra bonus, ‘Das Märchen von der schönen Melusine’, Concert Overture No. 4, Op. 32. And ‘Die Hebriden’, Concert Overture No. 2, Op.26.

The Super Audio catalogue gives three other ‘more or less’ complete sets. One is the old, remastered reference version of Otto Klemperer et al from 1960 (Mendelssohn: A Midsummer Night's Dream - Klemperer); the second is with Kristjan Järvi and the Tonkünstler-Orchester (Mendelssohn: Midsummer Night's Dream - Kristjan Järvi), which includes text intermezzi based on the play, in an ‘updated’ version by Franzobel (Franz Stefan Griebl, “one of Austria's most popular and controversial writers”). The only other one with text addition that I know of, is the 1996 RBCD recording (Sony Classical SK62826) with Claudio Abado, Berlin Philharmonic, Sylvia McNair, Angela Kirchschläger and Kenneth Branagh (narrator), the big difference being that the latter uses the text from Shakespeare. This, in its 2012 remastered version (Mendelssohn: Ein Sommernachtstraum, Symphony No. 4 - Abbado), is the third though not so very complete set (I do not have this one, but in its RBCD version Nos. 6, 10, 11 and 12 are missing).

All these versions have their pros and cons. If you want a textless, complete version in original high resolution format, there is in fact no other choice than Thomas Dausgaard and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra. Excellent though the aforementioned Abado version (in its original RBCD format) undeniably is, compared to Dausgaard’s reading, with lighter and much more transparent textures, one cannot but conclude that he serves the character and purpose of the play better than the massive forces of Berlin.

Both fairies, Camilla Tilling and Magdalena Risberg, do not only have beautiful, lyrical voices, they are in no way inferior to Abado’s cast of McNair & Kirchsläger. The female voices of the Swedish Radio Choir do a fine job, too.

Listening to and comparing both versions, the difference between RBCD and SACD became most revealing. Apart from the size of the orchestras and (small) differences in reading, it underlines once again the distinct quality jump between these formats. In high resolution everything is so very precise and detailed, whereas in Abado’s some blurring occurs in the tutis, as though the recording is somewhat out of focus. This may have been corrected in the remastering process. And, of course, much of the hi-res sound quality we owe to the seasoned BIS engineers and the superb playing of The Swedish Chamber Orchestra under the baton of Thomas Dausgaard.

After all this praise, I’ll be brief about both Concert Overtures: Better than most! No. 2 with alternating sunny, brooding and brutal waves and shades; and the less familiar No. 4, with which the program on this disk opens: with an attractive mixture of dancing, boisterous, charming and overwhelming colours.

Those who insist on a version with ‘the real Shakespeare' text and Kenneth Branagh at its best, may want to turn to Abado (at a price!). But if the music comes first, there is no better choice than this new, complete reading by Thomas Dausgaard, with its rich and clear audiophile sound.

Warmly recommended without any reservation whatsoever.

Blangy le Château
Normandy, France

Copyright © 2015 Adrian Quanjer and HRAudio.net

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Comment by hiredfox - December 28, 2015 (1 of 1)

Dausgaard gives us a lacklustre and routine performance of the main work of this disc, technically sharp and efficient as you would expect from this maestro but lacking any sense of the drama and emotion of the famous play it was sketched to accompany. True it is rarely if ever heard today in conjunction with Shakespeare's masterpiece and infrequently in the concert hall because of its length and programming difficulties, nevertheless the play is so frequently and widely performed that most will be familiar with its plot lines so there can be no excuse for this conductor to play it out so much out of context. Even as an occasional concert piece one would and should expect more fireworks than he offers.

Co-incidentally another new recording of the work has been released on SACD Mendelssohn in Birmingham, Vol 4 - Pike, Gardner with Edward Gardner leading the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra which by comparison is head and shoulders above the Swedish Chamber Orchestra version, there being no doubt that Gardner understands and appreciates fully the context of this incidental music delivering a performance excitingly full of drama, tension and mystery - as befits The Baird's finest. It is not too much of a stretch to suggest that through Gardner, a reprise of the play in one's mind is perfectly realised.

Don't waste your money on Dausgaard if you need a modern recording of this work and previous releases do not satisfy or appeal, Gardner will more than satisfy and as a "filler" Chandos offer us the wonderful Opus 64 Concerto in E Minor played by Jennifer Pike. Overall Klemperer remains first choice although I was not too happy about the quality of the SACD re-mastering.