VERDI: Complete Overtures, Preludes and
BBC Philharmonic Sir Edward
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
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
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!