INKPOT#78 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: MENDELSSOHN A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Overtures: Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, Ruy Blas and The Hebrides. Slovak PO/Bramall; Dohnnyi (Naxos)

MENDELSSOHN (1809-1849)
Incidental Music to Shakespeare’s
A Midsummer Night’s Dream*


Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, op.27
Ruy Blas, op.95 The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave), op.26
Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra
conducted by Anthony Bramall* Olivier Dohnnyi


[65:09] budget-price

by Chia Han-Leon

In terms of sheer melodic inspiration, this album must be the equivalent of having Hagen-Dazs ice cream for dinner – at budget price!

Mendelssohn - detail from portrait by Eduard Magnus The Slovak Phil seems somehow to breathe life into this music – they not only sound as if they believe in the it, but enjoy it as such. I can’t explain it exactly – it’s as if Mendelssohn himself was conducting. The playing is committed, with ample detail of the score though the recorded sound is occasionally a touch blur. Indeed, there is a kind of… dignified grace to this interpretation, which I find uniquely appealing. The result is lively, if not the liveliest. Yet there is something very appealing with this style – a kind of relaxed, comfortable pace and playing.

Left: Detail from a portrait of Mendelssohn
in the last years of his life, by Eduard Magnus.

The Nocturne for example is a triumph – the tone of the horn, warm and human, is just right. Add to it a touch of nobility and philosophical wisdom, and you get a reading which nearly brought tears to my eyes. The Slovak Phil should be proud. In the Overture, note the serene string theme beginning at 10’56” (near the end) – beautifully singing, very nice textures. Elsewhere, the phrasing has ample bounce while the orchestral sound possesses a warm brilliance, qualities so crucial to this vibrant overture.

Admittedly there are a few rough edges. In the Scherzo, the woodwind is a little choppy rather than bubbly; and yet there is a lot of interesting detail. There is again that same sensation of slightly straight playing but somehow it works. The reading is not as “scherzic” as other versions, but is more symphonic and classical – very interesting interpretation. The final fluttering flute passage is delivered very appealingly.

I was wondering – something as popular (and difficult) as the incidental music for Midsummer – should I bother with an “unknown” East European orchestra? (I’m pretending to be one of those unenlightened anti-Naxos people). If I were to be presumptious, I guess I would go looking for some West European orchestra’s rendition on some big expensive label instead. But on listening to the Slovakians here, I realise how artificial and unnaturally clean many other readings of Midsummer sound, focussing more on the music as orchestral showpieces rather than as the youthful inspiration of a talented young composer. (For example, I have never liked the much-bragged about Berlin PO/Abbado complete version on Sony with Kenneth Branagh narrating – the most embarassing Titania I’ve ever encountered).

Dance, 1962-63 by Marc Chagall I think what I like most about this reading therefore is how unpretentious the orchestra sounds. Most intrepretations by the big shot orchestras tend to sound somewhat too self-conscious, turning the Scherzo into a virtuosic display, the Nocturne into an exercise on beautiful tone, etc. The Slovak performance draws to an appropriate climax in the Wedding March, whose celebration is likewise grand but simple, sincere without overdue focus on the orchestral skill involved. The gorgeous trio is handled with heartwarming grace – once again I am honoured to be able to recommend a version of this most famous of famous wedding musics which does not sound clichd.

Right: Detail from “Dance” (1962-6)
by Marc Chagall

I suspect relatively few are aware that Mendelssohn composed not one but two sea-inspired tone-poem/overtures. Besides the famous Hebrides Overture, there is the undeservedly neglected Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage Overture (with its somewhat less auspicious German name, Meeresstille und glckliche Fahrt), after a poem of the same name by Goethe. Testifying perfectly to its artistic and literary background, this is music that perfectly attests to the imagination and spirit of the most quintessentially Romantic variety. Unlike Debussy’s La Mer or Sibelius’ The Oceanides, this is music which celebrates not the sea alone and itself, but the Romantic celebrating his sense of liberation and joy in beholding it. Romantic music as such does not actually depict the sea itself, but humankind’s emotional reaction to it.

The work begins in a long, mist-enshrouded but utterly serene string adagio, perfectly depicting the Romantic seascape of calm mystery. Once again, the Slovak strings impress with their compelling invocation of this beautifully hushed hymn to the ocean. Just listen to their organ-like shimmering blend of textures – this will surely put many a big name orchestra to shame. A flutter of birdsong and a quick surge of waves propels the music into the allegro, as the voyage gathers momentum. This fast section can easily pass off as a movement from one of Mendelssohn’s symphonies, especially when so tightly held together by the Slovakians here. The rush of strings and blare of winds ably depict the wind rushing across one’s face as the ship of human spirit surges through the seas and sails victoriously to its symbolic destination.

The Ruy Blas Overture is delivered here with much conviction as well. Though there are a few rough edges to the sound, the Slovak Orchestra again impress with their mighty music-making, turning in much detail and Mendelssohnian ferocity in the busy stringwork; yet all this is next to the lyrical invocation of the milder viola/cello(?) theme. All in all a very exciting and bright performance recorded in the Concert Hall of the Slovak Philharmonic. I’ve heard this overture ‘live’ twice and haven’t been impressed until now.

Speaking of the recording, these were made in 1987 and 1988. Midsummer was previously issued by Naxos on 8.550055 (with “Italian Symphony”) while the Overtures with Dohnnyi were on 8.550222 (with “Scottish Symphony”). Naxos has chosen well in reissuing this selection. When I first saw this some months back, I hesitated because I only wanted Calm Sea and Hebrides – last week I had a chance to sample the whole disc, and the rest is history.

My only main complaint is the awkward sequence of Midsummer-Calm Sea-Ruy Blas-Hebrides. The abrupt shift from the “Wedding March” to the misty opening of Calm Sea, for example, is rather discomforting. It would have been much wiser to start the album with Ruy Blas, followed by Calm Sea, The Hebrides, then Midsummer.

Below right: Detail from “Morning after a stormy night” (1819)
by Johan Christian Clausen Dahl (1788-1857).

Detail from 'Morning after a stormy night' (1819) by Johan Christian Clausen Dahl (1788-1857) But small point. I was looking for a recent good recording of The Hebrides when I was testing this out. Again, kudos to those gleaming Slovak strings – and those cellos! Mendelssohn caught those undulating waves when he wrote that swirling cello figure – and here they can be heard clearly and most evocatively. Dohnnyi’s choice of tempo is very agreeable, from the opening to the stormy central passage to the serene hymn passages before the trashing end. The soaring clarinet duet is played with sincerity and warmth, though the tone could be rounder.

I find it a wonder that living in a landlocked country, the Slovakians have such a sincere and vivid image of the seas – or perhaps that is why. The earnest manner of the music-making in this disc reminds me of the composer himself, who despite his popularity and talent, never sought fame for self-profit, but promoted music to the masses for the betterment of their aesthetic education. I hope this disc can do the same.

Chia Han-Leon is a banana split fan.

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