Faeries and humans may well dance and rejoice in Ivan Fischer’s new reading of Mendelssohn’s classic response to Shakespeare’s magical comedy.
MENDELSSOHN: Overture and Incidental Music to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Opp. 21 & 61; F. MENDELSSOHN: May Night, OP. 9, No. 6; Distance, Op. 9, No. 2; Gondola Song, Op. 1, No. 6 – Anna Lucia Richter, soprano/ Barbara Kozelj, alto/ Pro Musica Women’s Choir, Nyiregyhaza/ Budapest Festival Orchestra/ Ivan Fischer – Channel Classics Hybrid DSD CCA SA 37418, 56:35 (6/22/18) [Distr. by PIAS] *****:
That Felix Mendelssohn composed his Overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the age of seventeen (1826) continues to astound anyone aware of the precious delicacy and sensitivity of its scoring and absolute fitness of its idiom. Whether or not the young Mendelssohn had been impressed by Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischuetz, the sensibility of magical transformation and faerie intrigue so suits the drama that no other composer has dared to challenge the effect. In terms of recorded performance, depending on one’s preference for English or German narrative, those by Otto Klemperer and Ferenc Fricsay, respectively, have maintained their dominance in my own catalogue of inspired readings. Now, with this performance by Ivan Fischer, who claims “we made this recording for fairies,” we have a conscientious, joyous reading that delights in Bottom’s donkey effects, a drunken Funeral March, effervescent textures, and light graciousness of heart.
In 1842 Prussian King Friedrich Wilhem IV commissioned Mendelssohn to add new pieces to the original overture to the Shakespeare play, to which Mendelssohn composed thirteen numbers—Fischer incorporates nine. Fairy King Oberon’s spell casts a confounding light on most of the lovers, who become entangled in false and even bizarre relationships. Much of the music responds to abstract or emotional states, although the famous horn solo in the Nocturne likely depicts Titania’s sleep in the midst of the enchanted forest. The whirling Intermezzo may echo Hermia’s desperation to find Lysander. Puck has his supreme moment in the Scherzo, whose gurgling woodwinds remind us “what fools these mortals be.” The spinning of spiders’ webs will never find a better musical representation than that offered in the first Song with Choir. “All is good, so hence, away, ye spotted snakes.” Fischer’s brisk tempos prevent anything like bathos or artificial sentimentality to intrude on the fantastic and courtly proceedings. The Intermezzo, for instance, breaks into a bucolic, rustically charming, country dance that seems the soul of artistic closure. The eternal Wedding March struts in pomp and regal ceremony, the Budapest trumpets, strings, cymbals, and tympani in full glory. For the charming Finale: Allegro di molto, Mendelssohn recapitulates elements of his Overture, spliced to his First Faery’s benediction to the power of magic in song. Soprano Anna Lucia Richter’s voice may remind connoisseurs of Lucia Popp or Elizabeth Grummer, so slightly resonant are her vocal powers.
Fischer complements the classic work by Felix Mendelssohn with three choral songs by his elder sister, Fanny Henselt (1805-1847). Fanny’s reading embraced major poets, including Heine, Hoelty, Klopstock, Novalis, and Schiller. The first, May Night (Hoelty) found its way to the music paper of Johannes Brahms, who may well have know Fanny Mendelssohn’s treatment, which slips into the minor mode to depict the song of the nightingale. The song Ferne (Distance, by Tieck) of 1823, casts a sense of poignant loneliness, much in the Schubert tradition. Fanny’s setting of Geibel’s Gondellied—a subject of many of her brother’s songs without words—enjoys a bucolic and haunting lyricism, a serenade sustained on Venetian waters colored by moonlight. The scoring reminds us of her brother’s watery imagery in The Fair Melusina and casts a melodic lure that Mahler could envy