Recapturing one’s youth is a favourite preoccupation of thirty-somethings. Few recaptured it quite as vivaciously as Felix Mendelssohn. Sixteen years after composing his A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture – all gossamer wings and braying donkeys – he brilliantly rolled back the years to recreate that same fairyland in his incidental music to Shakespeare’s play. I suspect I’ll hear this miraculous score many times in this 400th anniversary year of The Bard’s death (two further opportunities present themselves in the next ten days!) but I doubt I’ll hear it better played than the LSO under Sir John Eliot Gardiner in this Mendelssohnian feast.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner © Sim Canetty-Clarke
Sir John Eliot Gardiner
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

Silky cobwebs and boisterous jollity were captured in Gardiner’s vivid account of the Overture, with sly portamentos employed for Bottom’s hee-haws. Resiny double basses skittered in Puck’s Scherzo, while Olivier Stankiewicz’s lovely mellow oboe tone could lull even the most insomniac Titania to restful repose. The Wedding March was a thing of rejoicing, lightly sprung, and the March of the Elves tripped along prettily. The only musical blot on this fairy landscape was some wobbly horn tone at the outset of the Nocturne.

But this was more than just a jaunt through the well known numbers. Most of the items from the incidental music were included, barring those for Shakespeare’s “Rude Mechanicals”, so alas no episode for Puck spying on their woodland rehearsals and no pithy funeral march from their Pyramus and Thisbe. But all the other melodramas were present and correct, musical gobbets to punctuate scenes where Oberon anoints the sleeping Titania’s eyes with the love potion, or where Puck applies a remedial potion to Lysander to rectify his earlier error. Ladies from the Monteverdi Choir gave splendid voice and crisp diction to “Ye Spotted Snakes” and the finale “Through the House”.

The performance also benefited from the presence of three actors, not in any attempt to relate Shakespeare’s triple-layered plot, thank goodness, but to set the musical items in context. With a tiara and a chaise longue the only props, Ceri-Lyn Cissone quickly transformed from slumbering Titania to abandoned Hermia, which may have confused those who need to brush up their Shakespeare. Frankie Wakefield’s youthful Oberon matched Cissone for urgency, while Alexander Knox had just the right impish attitude for Puck. With sensitive lighting adding a blue nocturnal chill to the Barbican Hall, this performance tingled with drama.

By the time he composed his Overture to The Dream, Mendelssohn already had his First Symphony securely under his belt, composed at the tender age of fourteen and a half. But like the Dream, he returned to it. Dissatisfied with the third movement Minuet, he replaced it when he made his London debut in May 1829 with an orchestral reworking of the Scherzo from his Octet. In a brief introduction to the concert, Gardiner explained how he had decided to include both Scherzo and Minuet in this performance of the First Symphony, so we could decide which was best. I cast my vote for the Octet – a scampering, scuttling scherzo with flecks of woodwind colour that looked forward to the effervescent scherzo in The Dream. The Minuet felt rather redundant placed next, especially its penny-plain trio section.

Gardiner certainly injected vim and vigour into this performance of the First. With violins and violas standing, and cellos on risers, the LSO was bold and impactful, the bright, aggressive sound bringing out the brilliance in Mendelssohn’s string writing, where the antiphonally placed second violins rarely play second fiddle. With timpani strokes like lightning bolts, this was an urgent performance that fairly zinged along. Bottom, who claimed “a reasonable good ear in music” would surely have approved.