July 29, 2010


Mendelssohn: A Midsummer Night’s Dream—Complete Incidental Music. Jenny Wollerman and Pepe Becker, sopranos; Varsity Voices, Nota Bene and New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by James Judd. Naxos. $8.99.

Bach: Cantatas, Volume 11—For the Twentieth Sunday after Trinity; For the Twenty-first Sunday after Trinity. Magdalena Kožená and Joanne Lunn, sopranos; Sara Mingardo and William Towers, altos; Christoph Genz and Paul Agnew, tenors; Peter Harvey and Gotthold Schwarz, basses; Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. SDG. $34.99 (2 CDs).

Schumann: Complete Works for Piano and Violin. Jenny Abel, violin; Roberto Szidon, piano. Ars Musici. $24.99 (2 CDs).

     Whether dealing with a single work or a group of them, presenting classical music in complete form is not always simple or straightforward. How exactly does one make something coherent of Mendelssohn’s wonderful music for Shakespeare’s play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream? The Overture and Scherzo are mainstays on concert programs, and the Wedding March (which does not end the play or the incidental music) is a mainstay everywhere, but put all three together and you still have less than half of what Mendelssohn wrote. What about the songs, the choruses, the melodramas (spoken words over music)? And if you do try to present everything, what language should you use? Mendelssohn wrote to a German translation of Shakespeare, so a truly “authentic” performance would be in German – but would give short shrift to the words of the greatest writer in the English language (although, in truth, some of the German is delightful, if not elegant). James Judd’s solution in his fine new Naxos recording is to do a little of this, a little of that, and turn the Mendelssohn music into elements of a much-shortened version of the entire play – in Shakespeare’s original English. Thus, in addition to two sopranos, chorus and orchestra, this recording features seven “players” in the Shakespearean sense – that is, actors and actresses – who deliver lines from several scenes of the play. This is scarcely Shakespeare’s complete five-act comedy (which was actually compressed into three acts when first staged with Mendelssohn’s music): the CD runs just an hour and a quarter. But this is a great deal more of Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream than is usually heard, and cast director David Timson gets as much enthusiasm from his players (Tom Mison, Adrian Grove, Emily Raymond, Anne-Marie Piazza, Gunnar Cauthery, Peter Kenny and Timson himself) as Judd gets from his. The less-often-heard music that runs through the melodramas frequently repeats elements already heard in the well-known orchestral sections, but it also has some lovely moments of its own, as when Oberon applies dew to Titania’s eyes. There is no perfect way to perform a “complete” Mendelssohn A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but Judd has given us a well-thought-out, thoroughly lovely and highly engaging one.

     The difficulty of performing the complete Bach cantatas is a matter of sheer scale: there are a lot of them, in many moods and with many instrumentations. John Eliot Gardner has been engaged in the monumental task of recording all the Bach cantatas for a decade now, and is scheduled to complete the set later this year. The latest volume, 11th in the series for SDG (“Soli Deo Gloria,” an appropriate name for the company releasing these discs), includes seven cantatas recorded in 2000 at two different venues, with the same choir and orchestra but different soloists. The three for the 20th Sunday after Trinity, BWV 49, 162 and 180, are all based on the Gospel reading about a royal wedding feast and are all filled with images of the soul as bride and Jesus as the “bread of life.” All are solemn. BWV 162, Ach! Ich sehe, itzt, da ich zur Hochzeit gehe (“Ah! I see, now, that I go to the wedding”) compares life with a journey to a marriage feast. BWV 49, Ich geh und suche mit Verlangen (“I go and seek with longing”) features dialogue showing the soul’s beauty in terms that are almost sensual. BWV 180, Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele (“Soul, adorn yourself with gladness”) is tenderly written and focused on getting ready for the wedding. The four cantatas for the 21st Sunday after Trinity, BWV 38, 98, 109 and 188 – which run a total of just over 80 minutes, pushing the limits of single-CD capacity – deal with the story of the healing of the nobleman’s son. These display a wider variety of moods than those for the 20th Sunday after Trinity. BWV 109, Ich glaube, lieber Herr, hilf meinem Unglauben! (“I have faith, dear Lord, help my disbelief”) portrays the conflict between faith and doubt, with faith eventually granted. BWV 38, Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir (“From deep distress I cry to you”), is a setting based on Martin Luther’s famous hymn, which is in its turn based on Psalm 130. BWV 98, Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan (“What God does is surely right”), is a lighter and more genial work. And BWV 188, Ich habe meine Zuversicht auf den getreuen Gott gericht (“I have placed my confidence in the true God”), features a fine tenor aria and includes a Sinfonia derived from Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto in D Minor. Gardiner leads his forces with skill and fine attention to period detail, and brings out the many contrasts among these cantatas as well as their similarities. Recording the complete Bach cantatas is a monumental task that is producing CDs of very high quality and lasting value.

     Sometimes, to be sure, completeness is somewhat easier to come by. Unless some previously unknown works surface in the future, Robert Schumann’s complete output for piano and violin fits comfortably on two CDs – and is very nicely performed by Jenny Abel and Roberto Szidon for Ars Musici. There are three sonatas, which fill the first CD, plus a variety of shorter works – some of them better known in other forms. The Adagio and Allegro for Piano and Horn appears here in an optional version using violin; Three Romances, usually heard on oboe, are here in a violin version as well; and also here are the Fantasy Pieces for Piano and Clarinet, the Five Pieces in the Popular Tone (usually played on cello) and the four Märchenbilder (generally heard on viola). There is also a Fantasie that was written for violin and orchestra – here heard in its alternative piano version. It could be argued that none of the six works on the second CD is a “native” piece for violin and piano, but Schumann certainly saw that instrumental combination as an option, and the works generally lie well on these instruments – although some pieces do tend to lose their darker and more contemplative aspects, notably those written for clarinet and cello and the Märchenbilder. What is especially interesting about this two-CD set is that it gives the lie to the canard that Schumann did not really know how to write for the violin. Certainly he wrote for it in many unconventional ways – for example, in the works heard here, the two instruments often play the same material or exchange identical passages. But this is not so much a flaw as it is an unconventional way of creating mood and coloristic effects – and Abel and Szidon clearly understand this. When their material is linked, they affirm it very effectively, and when it is contrasted, they bring out the differences to equal effect. The result is a completely engrossing account of Schuman’s complete oeuvre for violin and piano – and an affirmation of the composer’s skill in bringing these two instruments together.

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