The week in classical: A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Pekka Kuusisto & Norwegian Chamber Orchestra: DSCH; Camerata RCO – review

“Darkly bright, are bright in dark directed.” Who wouldn’t want to pass that line off as their own? Shakespeare’s Sonnet 43, full of shadows, sleep and dreams, has an affinity with his A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which human mystery speaks more powerfully than sweet fairy magic. When Benjamin Britten made the play into an opera in 1960 for the reopening of Aldeburgh’s Jubilee Hall, he and his partner, Peter Pears, chopped and reordered the text but introduced only six words (apparently) that were not Shakespeare’s own. Directors have mined the opera’s hints of eroticism and deviance, setting it in ink-splattered schoolroom, country house nursery and Cabaret-style Berlin with Thisbe memorably twirling her nipple tassels.

Garsington’s new staging, conducted by Douglas Boyd and directed and designed by Netia Jones, has returned it to a wood. It revels in the darkly bright. Boyd and the Philharmonia Orchestra, playing superbly, kept the pace swift and flowing; it was hard to imagine that this work can, usually does, sag. (Oh no, the rude mechanicals. Oh no, the lost lovers. But no oh-no-ing here.) The sinister clatterings of harpsichord or xylophone, the glissando swoops of double bass and two harps, the lurching solo trombone: all always ear-catching, were especially vivid.

The staging was stylish and minimal, with unobtrusive use of projections. Astrolabe, black-disc moon, map of the night sky: these objects of science emphasised detachment. Oberon, King of the Fairies (the countertenor Iestyn Davies), dressed in black suit, and his white-gowned queen, Tytania (soprano Lucy Crowe), were cleverly cool; their intelligence mechanical. The real mechanicals, led by Richard Burkhard as Bottom, with James Way an enchanting, deb-like Thisbe, offered warmth and humanity. They were also – a red-letter day – actually funny.

‘Actually funny’: James Way, Geoffrey Dolton, Adam Sullivan, Richard Burkhard and Frazer Scott as the mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photograph: Craig Fuller

The young lovers, dressed as 1960s sixth formers, were interchangeable dramatically, impressive and distinctive vocally. Praise to all: Lysander (Caspar Singh), Hermia (Stephanie Wake-Edwards), Demetrius (James Newby) and Helena (Camilla Harris). A high point of the staging was the two-dozen-strong Garsington Opera Youth Company – children drawn from local state schools and trained from scratch to sing Britten’s difficult choral music. Rehearsals started in January. Few, if any, had even heard of Britten. Hard to imagine the transformative impact the involvement with music at this level – and exposure to an audience attentive and cheering – will have made on their lives. No doubt it would have been easier and cheaper to bring in one of the elite London children’s choirs at the last minute. That Garsington did not added to the persuasive effect of this Midsummer Night’s Dream. Call it magic if you like. It will be semi-staged at the Proms on 10 September.

In that same summer of 1960 when Britten’s Dream was premiered, his friend Dmitri Shostakovich – whom he knew remotely, but only met face to face in September of that year – experienced a dramatic change in his life. The Russian composer at last yielded and joined the Communist party, then, at speed, wrote his String Quartet No 8, a work of bleak intensity. His musical motto, based on the four notes associated with his name (he used German notation) and referred to as DSCH, runs through the five movements. The Finnish violinist-director Pekka Kuusisto explored its many manifestations through Shostakovich’s later career in a high-concept staged concert with the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra entitled DSCH, directed by Katrine Sonstad and Mikkel Harder Munck-Hansen. With the accordion player Bjarke Mogensen, the NCO gave two performances (I saw the first) last weekend at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

Violinist Pekka Kuusisto, far left, and members of the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra at the Southbank. Photograph: Pete Woodhead

Who but the visionary Kuusisto could have persuaded his expert musicians to move around the stage in near total darkness, bending and bobbing back and forth while playing instruments worth tens of thousands of pounds. Walking while playing, in daylight, would be challenge enough. Over 90 minutes they performed 19 musical extracts from memory. Some players wore masks, others were covered in warrior markings. All were costumed in a style that would have honoured Samuel Beckett or Vivienne Westwood. Kuusisto wore a long kilt and at one point walked across the stage masked, carrying a big bass drum. Projections of landscapes, birch forest, full moon conveyed ideas of isolation, without ever being Soviet-literal. The music’s centrepiece was Chamber Symphony in C minor, Op 110a (arr. Barshai) from the String Quartet No 8. The end came too soon. This was one of the most unusual and inventive concerts of the year so far.

Whereas Shostakovich’s quartet was expanded, at Wigmore Hall Bruckner’s Symphony No 6, for large symphony orchestra, was reduced to 10 players, including piano and accordion. The virtuosic Camerata RCO – members of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam – played an arrangement by the Dutch conductor Rolf Verbeek. The effect was like looking at an architect’s elevation drawing of a familiar building: every detail clear and delineated, lines of structure exposed anew, intriguing, the scale not quite graspable. Broadcast live on Radio 3, it’s on BBC Sounds, though if you can crack the cryptic new listings for the lunchtime music, I’ll be impressed.

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Star ratings (out of five)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream ★★★★
Pekka Kuusisto & Norwegian Chamber Orchestra: DSCH ★★★★
Camerata RCO ★★★★

The Guardian

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