Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Music Webmaster
Len Mullenger:

VERDI: Complete Overtures, Preludes and Ballet Music.
BBC Philharmonic Sir Edward Downes.
CHANDOS CHAN9510, CHAN9594, CHAN9696, CHAN9788. 4 discs aas CHAN9787/4. 76m, 71m, 56m, 64m.

As the Verdi centenary celebrations take a firmer and more manic hold on the year, this wonderfully 'complete' four-disc set is one of the prime examples of Verdi's unshakeable appeal. The more interesting point of this set is that it is a wholesome British effort and that gives it a certain cosmopolitan edge although, of course, Sir Edward Downes is absolutely no stranger to the operatic pit and to the immense charm of Verdi. Chandos released the earlier two volumes a couple of years back and with the issue of the Third and Fourth discs, they have wisel grouped the four into a handsome four disc set retailing at mid price, surely a bargain for all collectors. I shall review each disc in turn, keeping in mind that even in the box set, all four offerings are separate with their own catalogue number.

CHAN 9510: 'The Early Verdi'

This is the longest disc and contains some exquisite examples of youthful Verdi playing around with his idea of the Overture and how it was to introduce his operas. 'Oberto' is grand enough whilst the boisterous charm of 'Un giorno di regno' is excellently characterized by Downes. I was not so sure with 'Nabucco'; the sometimes grand tempo detracts from the overall visceral excitement of this splendid piece. The short 'Preludes' to 'Ernani' and 'I due Foscari' are significant in that they signify Verdi's change of heart in overture form. This was to return in the rather poorly constructed 'Alzira'. 'Giovanna d'Arco', on the other hand, is a superb example of orchestration and is memorable for its central section. Downes clocks in perfect timings for 'Attila' and 'Macbeth' (both at 3'21) whilst the ballet music to the latter is a splendid discovery, full of dark witchlike music and permeated with real Verdian panache. 'I masnadieri' is another dark opera and the brilliant Prelude (with an excellently played cello solo) remarkably foretells the grim plot about to unfold. 'Il corsaro' returns to the short Prelude form but the Byronesque catches of the story are not lost in these dramatic few bars. Finally we have another full length overture, the epic, 'Battaglia di Legnano', nine minutes of sheer enjoyment and one that confounds the saying that Verdi could not write a proper overture!

CHAN 9594: A 'new' opera and the Middle Period'

Confounded Verdians who will be slightly bewildered at 'Jerusalem' need look no further than John Steane's charismatic note exposing it as a re-working of 'I Lombardi' for the Parisian stage. Nonetheless the short overture is very exciting and the twenty-minute ballet music is even more invigorating. Here there is much to gain from Sir Edward's knowledge of this genre and his conducting is second to none with the BBC players in obvious party mood - just listen to the irresistible 'Pas de quatre'. 'Luisa Miller' is one of my favorite operas and the thrilling Overture is one of Verdi's best combining the main themes of the opera in a very skilful pastiche. 'Stiffelio' has a very poor overture and although it is lengthy, there is absolutely nothing to write home about (I agree wholeheartedly with Steane's assessment here). By contrast the drama contained in the short 'Rigoletto' Prelude is characteristically brilliant. Compact forms have never sounded so intense. The 'Trovatore' ballet music is also immensely charming and receives a spankingly good-humoured reading.

CHAN9696: The Mature Age.

What better than to begin a disc with the sweetly strained sounds of the tragic Prelude to 'La Traviata'? The soft BBC strings play with beautiful warmth and Downes eggs the music on to over four minutes surely at one with the sensitive feelings of Verdi's great tragedy. The Third Act Prelude is also miraculously done and can rank as one of the finest interpretations around. The Overture to 'I Vespri Siciliani' has much dramatic matter and the bold noble themes surely strike a revolutionary chord the way Downes conducts them. This is no-holds barred patriotic Verdi at his best! The larger part of the disc is taken up by the colourful 'Four Seasons' ballet. This is not a sequel to Vivaldi' but the entertainment planned for the French version of 'I Vespri'. This should be much better known as a concert piece not just for the wealth and beauty of its themes but as a striking example of the brilliance of Verdi's orchestration. Downes plays the first (1857) version of the 'Simon Boccanegra' Prelude, fundamentally quite different from the revision and very interesting nonetheless. "Un Ballo in Maschera' is a great opera but its Prelude suffers from some banality in construction and leaves one on a slightly sour note! Still what a foretaste of things to come!

CHAN9788: Greatness and Legend.

In most of his final operas, Verdi was to dispense with a true Overture, no doubt he was aiming for a greater emphasis on the drama rather than on pompous introductions. We have an interesting version of the 1862 'Forza del Destino' Prelude here - three minutes of charm but obviously no match for the magnificent Overture (1869) that is played with white hot inspiration by Downes and the ever brilliant BBC Philharmonic. 'Don Carlos' also does not have an Overture but the Third Act Prelude and the sumptuous ballet are feast enough for the orchestra lover. 'La Peregrina' is the ballet title and here I was immensely charmed by the music, which is another spate of vintage Verdi.. Pity he never wrote a full-length ballet! Most of this last volume is taken up by various offerings from 'Aida'. There is the Prelude to the Cairo Premiere together with the more famous Dances and ballet Music, all honest-to-goodness performances perhaps lacking slightly in bite and speed. The interesting item here is the Overture to the 1872 Italian Premiere, twelve minutes of action and pomp. It was wise for Verdi to withdraw it but it makes a very effective concert piece. Verdi's shortest ballet was for his greatest opera and although Otello is structurally perfect, the ballet can be played on its own and is a marvelous example of the octogenarian composer dallying about with his orchestral skills.

All four volumes boast authoritative and remarkably colourful notes by that Verdian expert, John B. Steane and the recordings are in the best Chandos fashion, clear, spacious and effortlessly expansive. I still retain a certain affection for Karajan's trail-blazing BPO set of Overtures and Preludes but that does not include the ballet music so Downes must now be the unqualified recommendation for a complete survey of Verdi's orchestral works. There is much to enjoy, believe me!


Gerald Fenech




Gerald Fenech



Reviews from previous months

You can purchase CDs, tickets and musician's accessories and Save around 22% with these retailers :

Concert and Show tickets


Musicians accessories

Click here to visit

Return to Index