Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a RSNO musical treat

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Hensel, Burton, Mendelssohn: Carine Tinney (soprano), Rosamond Thomas (mezzo-soprano), Christine Steel (narrator), RSNO Youth Chorus (Patrick Barrett, director), Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Thomas Søndergård (conductor). Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 15.3.2024. (SRT)

Thomas Søndergård conducts the Royal Scottish National Orchestra © Jessica Cowley/RSNO

Fanny Hensel – Overture in C major
James BurtonThe Lost Words (Scottish premiere)
Felix Mendelssohn – A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Overture and Incidental Music

The last time the Royal Scottish National Orchestra played Mendelssohn’s full incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream was during the outdoor Edinburgh Festival of 2021 when every note of live music was like rain falling on a desert after eighteen months of drought. It is perfectly possible that the circumstances made me remember that concert more fondly than it deserved, but its 2024 iteration makes me think that maybe it really was that good the first time around because, in terms of the distinction of the playing, this concert was a treat.

Conductor Thomas Søndergård had a great ear for the balance of the score, for one thing. The big tutti sections of the Overture didn’t overwhelm the delicacy of the fairy music and sounded much more like the opposite side of the coin than a lurch into something different. The playing itself was top notch throughout, with the Overture’s four wind chords articulated with terrific precision, and terrific brass swagger over the Wedding March. If Søndergård paced the Nocturne a little too brusquely then at least it had beautiful, glowing horn tone, while principal clarinet Timothy Orpen played the mock funeral march as though he was freelancing with a klezmer band. The Scherzo bubbled like a glass of champagne, and the voices of the RSNO Youth Chorus sounded as light as thistledown, ably supported by soloists Carine Tinney and Rosamond Thomas.

The only problem was the narration. I am normally a big fan of having the text alongside the complete incidental music to give it some contextual punch, but Christine Steel’s flat-as-a-pancake delivery was an excitement-killer. (Reading off the script in not much more than a monotone, she gave the strong impression she’d rather be somewhere else, a more lucrative gig, perhaps?)

Musically speaking this Dream was superb, however, and it made sense to pair it with a work by Mendelssohn’s sister, an overture that had a dainty introduction before scampering into an exciting main allegro. The orchestra paid it the compliment of taking it seriously, and the bloom on the sound was lovely to hear. Maybe some of the piece’s thematic development was a little limited, but no more so than you would hear in a similar work by Weber or Schumann, who were far more experienced than she, and overall it is remarkably assured for a first purely orchestral work.

The RSNO Youth Chorus were back centre stage for the Scottish premiere of James Burton’s The Lost Words. Based on Jackie Morris’s popular book, Burton’s song cycle sets some terrifically evocative verse which the children of the chorus sang with wide-eyed enthusiasm and no small degree of skill. It is a testament to how well Patrick Barrett has trained them that not a single consonant was wasted, and that chewy vowel sounds on words like ‘newt’ were exploited for all they were worth. Burton’s music is straightforwardly appealing and has all the directness of a TV or movie soundtrack with harmonies used only rarely so that they make a big impact when they appear. All told, a hit!

Simon Thompson

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