Mendelssohn: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (excerpts); Symphony No. 4 in A (Italian)

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COMPOSERS: Mendelssohn
WORKS: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (excerpts); Symphony No. 4 in A (Italian)
PERFORMER: Kenneth Branagh (narrator), Sylvia McNair (soprano), Angelika Kirchschlager (mezzo-soprano) Women of the Ernst Senff Chorus, Berlin PO/Claudio Abbado
It’s good to be able to report that Abbado’s Mendelssohn is as fresh and vivacious as ever. His LSO recordings of the symphonies (on DG) were very fine, but this new Berlin account of the Italian Symphony – recorded live at the Berlin Philharmonic’s 1995 New Year’s Eve Concert – positively crackles with energy, especially in the whirlwind finale. The second movement’s procession is beguilingly phrased and Abbado even convinces me that the weak Minuet is worth its place in this otherwise utterly marvellous work. The performance of Mendelssohn’s equally delightful incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream is taken from the same concert, though Kenneth Branagh’s narration was added later (he projects well and the acoustics are well matched, so the result feels perfectly natural). The extracts Branagh uses fit well with Mendelssohn’s music (of which we hear all the important numbers) and concentrate on the central tussle between Tytania and Oberon and the latter’s confused conspiracy with Puck to untangle the love lives of the young Athenians. It’s a heroic attempt to capture some of the magic of the play, and Branagh passes with flying colours (though I’m not totally convinced by Puck as a leprechaun). A delightful disc, then, beautifully packaged – though, curiously, without programme notes. Stephen Maddock