To mix metaphors, Sir John Eliot Gardiner has the knack of going for the jugular when exposing the nerve-ends of most music, particularly so in the case of Mendelssohn. He was at it again, whacking elfin grace into the long grass and focusing on volatile energy, in the LSO’s and Barbican Centre’s continuing Shakespeare series, it being 400 years since he died.
Shakespeare, though, wasn’t the first inspiration that came to mind at the start of the 15-year-old composer’s Symphony No.1, a work nearly as accomplished as the impossibly precocious Octet, which followed a year later, in 1825. The Symphony’s early-romantic credentials sounded all in place, either revisiting, for example, the melodrama of Weber’s Wolf’s Glen in the first movement or anticipating the vividly lit energy of Berlioz in the Finale, the music all the while paying its dues to Mozart and Beethoven.
Sir John Eliot and the LSO really dug into its full-on shock and awe in the driven first movement, with the violinists and viola-players ratcheting up the tension by playing standing up (as they have in previous LSO concerts with Gardiner, and as does the Aurora Orchestra), which seemed to add to a thrilling sense of danger in the ensemble and a raw, loud volume, with leader Roman Simovic’s style more than usually animated, pour encourager les autres, no doubt. For the listener, the look seems to raise the urgency, and there was no lack of bite in their edgy, vibrato-free playing. The concert was also being filmed (by Mezzo), and musicians standing rather than sitting is no doubt more flattering visually. The lighting was suitably subdued and fairy-like to add to the visual atmosphere.
For a First Symphony (or No.13 as the composer had it, the C-minor Symphony followed twelve such works for Strings) it turned out to be quite long, close on forty minutes – with five movements. This was because, as Sir John Eliot explained from the rostrum, for its London premiere in 1829 Mendelssohn decided that his original Minuet was too dull and substituted his own orchestration of the Scherzo from the Octet. We got both, the latter version a virtuoso reworking, with woodwind and brass adding their own nimble security to the mercurial ensemble. The Minuet in the first (as published) version is, it’s true, more solid, set against an attractively layered Trio, with the advantage that it contrasts better with the fiery Finale. Listeners can compile their own version of the Symphony when it’s released on the LSO Live label.
The Germans love Shakespeare, to the extent that one of the translations is regarded as a pinnacle of German literature. It was also claimed recently that there are more new Shakespeare productions in Germany than in the UK. I can’t say that for Goethe and Schiller productions in the UK!
Mendelssohn’s Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, written when he was 17, is an astonishing feat of imagination and perception, one of the perfect acts of musical interpretation arising out of early-nineteenth-century sensibilities that, nearly two centuries later, is still channeling our understanding of Shakespeare’s disarming examination of the workings of our subconscious.
In this performance of the Incidental Music (which Mendelssohn added for a staging of the play in 1842) Gardiner removed all the Mechanicals material to concentrate on fairies and lovers. Ceri-Lynn Cissone, Frankie Wakefield and Alexander Knox, all graduates from the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, led us through the play’s highlights and spoke the familiar blank verse with a beautiful authority and, as required, majesty. The art of projection is not dead – not bad going for this not particularly word-friendly Hall. Perhaps it is ageist, but I can’t imagine A Midsummer Night’s Dream not played predominantly by young actors, and I hope these three get to do the whole play – they were impressive.
The LSO – all of its musicians now sitting – knew exactly when to assert and when to retreat, and Gardiner’s shading of the musical narrative flattered both composer and playwright. There was a demonic element to his incisive characterisation of the Overture, which both cast and broke spells, the LSO was generous with detail and delivered plenty of period-sounding colour from horns, timpani and woodwinds. The twelve sopranos and mezzos from the Monteverdi Choir managed to make the ‘Hence away’ chorus both sensual and ethereal, and the orchestra was, even by LSO standards, amazingly fleet in the ‘Scherzo’. Under Gardiner’s direction, the ‘Nocturne’, magically enhanced by Knox’s Puck, made you appreciate the undertow of anxiety in both the play and the music, and Gardiner floated the ‘Wedding March’ between bombast and brilliance: it put the fresh back into the familiar.