SARGENT Mendelssohn/Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night's Dream (1954) - PACO133

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SARGENT Mendelssohn/Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night's Dream (1954) - PACO133

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    SHAKESPEARE/MENDELSSOHN  A Midsummer Night's Dream
    Recorded 23 & 26 July (orchestra) and 11, 16 – 20 August 1954 (actors) in EMI Abbey Road Studio No. 1, London.
    Total duration: 2hr 25:23

    BBC Symphony Orchestra
    Sir Malcolm Sargent
    , conductor

    This set contains the following albums:

    The Old Vic 1954 Production of Shakespeare’s
    with the complete incidental music by Felix Mendelssohn

    “Let this set also cast a wondrous spell over you, as it has me; ecstatically recommended" - Fanfare

    This recording offers a rare opportunity to hear Mendelssohn’s complete incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the context of an only slightly abridged performance of Shakespeare’s play (Act IV, Scene 2 was omitted entirely, and small cuts were made throughout the rest of the work).  The 1954 production by London’s Old Vic Theatre company is said to have been the last major mounting of the work to employ what was even then considered to be an old fashioned approach combining orchestra, theatre and ballet.  It was successful enough to be brought over to America, where it played at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House later the same year.

    Before leaving England, the production was recorded by EMI and subsequently released by HMV and RCA Victor.  As far as I can determine, it has never received an “official” reissue since, either on LP or CD.  This is particularly surprising in view of some of the artists involved.  Moira Shearer and Robert Helpmann were ballet dancers turned film and stage actors (both starred in the Powell/Pressburger classics The Red Shoes and Tales of Hoffmann); Patrick Macnee would go on to be forever identified with John Steed of The Avengers TV series; and veteran entertainer Stanley Holloway was just two years away from immortality as Alfred P. Doolittle in the stage and subsequent film productions of My Fair Lady.

    Additionally, there is the combination of Sir Malcolm Sargent, the orchestra, chorus and vocal soloists in Mendelssohn’s magical score.  Those familiar only with the suite excerpted from the music will find some surprises hearing it in its original context.  For example, the theme associated with the rustics does not appear here at the end of the Intermezzo, as it was appended in the suite.  And besides the longer, familiar set pieces, there are many short melodrama underscorings that appear throughout the play, which created the template for later film composers.  (Indeed, Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s adaptation of the music for the 1935 Hollywood production of the work seemed to bring this connection full circle.)

    The present transfer has been made using the best portions of two American RCA pressings.  The original master tape had many problems, chiefly in the spoken sections – overload distortion, pops, electronic clicks, thumps, and other noises.  I have been able to remove nearly all of these blemishes, but some stubbornly resisted amelioration and remain, hopefully few enough not to impede enjoyment of the performance.

    Mark Obert-Thorn

    SHAKESPEARE/MENDELSSOHN  A Midsummer Night's Dream

    Robert Helpmann (Oberon)
    Moira Shearer (Titania)
    Philip Guard (Puck)
    Jocelyn Britten (Peaseblossom)
    Sheila Wright (Mustardseed)
    Joan King (Moth)
    Tania d’Avray (Cobweb)
    Anthony Nicholls (Theseus)
    Margaret Courtenay (Hippolyta)
    John Dearth (Egeus)
    Anne Walford (Hermia)
    Terence Longdon (Lysander)
    Joan Benham (Helena)
    Patrick Macnee (Demetrius)
    Peter Johnson (Philostrate)
    Eliot Makeham (Peter Quince)
    Michael Redington (Snug)
    Stanley Holloway (Bottom)
    Philip Locke (Flute)
    Norman Rossington (Snout)
    John Warner (Starveling)
    Elizabeth Wade (Singer 1)
    Suzanne Steele (Singer 2)
    Anne Wilson (Singer 3)

    Michael Benthall (director)

    Women’s Chorus
    BBC Symphony OrchestraSir Malcolm Sargent

    Fanfare Reviews

    A wonderful release, and surely one of the brightest jewels in Pristine’s ever-expanding catalog

    While there are numerous more or less complete recordings (most omitting a few momentary and fragmentary transitory passages) of Mendelssohn’s magical incidental music to Shakespeare’s equally enchanting comedy, this historic set features something different: the 1954 Old Vic recording of the play, slightly abridged (minor cuts throughout, and act IV, scene 2 omitted), with the incidental music included and heard in its proper theatrical context. The result is simply glorious. The vocal acting, thoroughly steeped in Victorian and early 20th-century British theatrical tradition and practice, is redolent with character, having a wonderful musicality of its own that shows most modern styles of acting to be painfully flat. The diction is exquisitely clear, and every word is invested with meaning. Equally remarkable is Malcolm Sargent’s conducting of Mendelssohn’s score—all nimbleness and lightness, with a beautifully dreamy and slow Nocturne, simply one of the finest accounts I’ve ever heard. Admittedly the chorus and vocal soloists (singing here in English, of course) are not of the same caliber, being merely adequate, but of course their parts are small. I could not find out any information about any of the three singers other than Suzanne Steele, so I cannot even establish which of the other two is a mezzo-soprano instead. Mark Obert-Thorn has performed his usual audio wizardry in giving this monaural recording remarkable clarity and high fidelity for its era. As usual, Pristine provides only a brief note rather than a booklet, and no texts. That brief note states that there has been no prior official CD release of this set. Amazon does show an obscure (perhaps unofficial) 2010 issue by Saland Publishing (see A comment left on that listing states that Sargent shifted some of Mendelssohn’s music around to different stage cues than specified in the original score (something I cannot verify or rebut), voices suspicion that some cuts were made in that reissued set (ditto), and complains of poor audio quality (surely much inferior to this release). My 2016 Want List is already bursting at the seams; but while this regrettably will not make the final cut there, it’s not for lack of deserving, and it’s something you definitely should want as well. Let this set also cast a wondrous spell over you, as it has me; ecstatically recommended.

    James A. Altena
    This article originally appeared in Issue 40:2 (Nov/Dec 2016) of Fanfare Magazine.


    This is the 1954 recording of the bulk of Shakespeare’s magical play; it was issued on HMV and RCA Victor (ALP 1262/4 and LM-6115), and Andrew Rose has taken the best parts of two American RCA pressings. The play itself has act IV, scene 2 omitted in its entirety and there are various other small cuts; it represents the 1954 Old Vic production, which subsequently toured to the USA. The orchestral segments were recorded in July of that year, the actors the next month, both at Abbey Road.

    The Overture is heard in a performance of miraculous lightness, the upper strings impeccably disciplined. Mark Obert-Thorn’s transfer has great presence. How wonderful to hear “Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour” after the final woodwind chords of the Overture; spoken voices are closely recorded but the text (poetry, really) is excellently delivered; Michael Benthall is credited as “theatre director.” The little snippets of music one hears throughout add a different dimension to the play, a mix of centuries (Shakespeare’s, and Mendelssohn’s) that is most appealing; all are delivered with the utmost care. The concluding brief segment to act I scene 2 leads in well to the famous Scherzo, itself in perhaps not the crispest rendition, but one that certainly has enthusiasm on its side. Sargent’s “Wedding March” has grandeur and pomp galore, an impression that stretches over the wonderfully interior central section.

    The obvious point of comparison here is Klemperer’s 1960 Philharmonia recording (with Janet Baker and Heather Harper in “You spotted snakes,” surely the highlight of the lesser-known incidental music here.) Klemperer’s band is more disciplined than the BBC orchestra (the Scherzo, for example), but arguably Sargent generally has the last iota of character in his favor. That said, Sargent’s “You spotted snakes” is a little lackluster, despite an attractive central lullaby chorus (and the vocal soloists are not credited, a shame as they are excellent singers).

    Sargent’s act III Intermezzo is wonderfully impulsive and urgent. Perhaps the recording is a touch over-resonant for the detail to come through when the lovely cello melody steps forward, but there is character aplenty here. Lovely to hear, too, how the horn calls of the Nocturne are pre-empted during the course of the dialogue. The performance of the Nocturne proper is lovely, taken at quite a mobile pace, with eloquent horns to the fore and the strings in the central panel captured in both recording and transfer with a lustrous sheen. The “Dance of the Clowns,” with its imitation of the braying of a donkey/ass, is blessed with appropriately rustic accentuation from the strings; the rather backwardly placed clarinet manages still to impart much joy. The final, gently pointed fairy chorus “Through the house give glimmering light” is magnificently done (again, better vocal soloists would have sealed the deal).

    The spoken cast includes Moira Shearer as Titania, Robert Helpmann as Oberon, Stanley Holloway as Bottom and Patrick Macnee (of Avengers fame) as an excellent Demetrius. Shearer’s “Come now, a roundel and a fairy song” is beautifully delivered, inviting in “You spotted snakes” deliciously. Perhaps Anne Walford’s Hermia savors a touch of an English girls’ boarding school, but one does hear her fears for Lysander in her scene with Demetrius (act III, scene 2). Anthony Nicholls is a resonant voiced Theseus. A fine selection of Mechanicals offers plenty of entertainment in the final stage of the evening with their Pyramus and Thisbe; the presence of an orchestra enables a trumpet and drum fanfare before the Prologue of Pyramus and, my word, how silly are some of the voices we hear in this insert! Puck’s final speech, delivered over the strains of the orchestra, is magical indeed.

    A wonderful release, and surely one of the brightest jewels in Pristine’s ever-expanding catalog.

    Colin Clarke
    This article originally appeared in Issue 40:2 (Nov/Dec 2016) of Fanfare Magazine.