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Gioacchino ROSSINI
Overtures: La Gazza Ladra; L'Italiana in Algeri; La Scale di Seta; Semiramide; Guillaume Tell
Sonatas for Strings: 1 in G, 3 in C
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
Il Barbiere di Siviglia: Overture; Largo al factotum; All'idea di quel metallo; Una voce poco fa
Luigi Alva (Almaviva); Teresa Berganza (Rosina); Hermann Prey (Figaro), London Symphony Orchestra/Claudio Abbado
Semiramide: Serena i vaghi rai; Bel raggio lusinghier; Dolce pensiero; Ebben, a te: ferisci; Giorno d'orrore!; Madre, addio
Dame Joan Sutherland (Semiramide), Marilyn Horne (Arsace), Ambrosian Opera Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra/Richard Bonynge
La Cenerentola: Una volta c'era un re; O figlie amabili; Nacqui all'affanno
Renato Cappecchi (Dandini), Paolo Montarsolo (Don Magnifico), Margherita Guglielmi (Clorinda), Laura Zanini (Tisbe), Teresa Berganza (Cenerentola), Ugo Trama (Alidoro), Scottish Opera Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra/Claudio Abbado
Stabat Mater: Cuius animam; Inflammatus et accensus
Katia Ricciarelli (soprano), Dalmacio Gonzales (tenor), Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra/Carlo Maria Giulini
DG Panorama 469 193-2 (2 CDs): [72.18+77.01]
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The booklet notes seem to have been written about thirty years ago. Having dwelt on the great popularity of Rossini's operas during his lifetime, one Oliver Buslau informs us that "Nowadays, only a few of them, such as The Barber of Seville and La Cenerentola, hold a place in the regular repertory, and the rest … are the reserve mainly of specialists and bel canto buffs". If this is really still so in the writer's native Germany I am very sorry for them all because elsewhere, on both sides of the Atlantic, opera houses have found ample room for both the comic and the serious Rossini, ever since Sutherland and Horne demonstrated, in the 1960s, how it should be sung. Equally antiquated is the insistence on Rossini's prowess as chef and gourmet with nary a word (my turn to be antiquated!) about the plots of the operas highlighted or the music in general (can we assume that the public at which these packs are aimed does not need to be told what a Stabat Mater is?).

All this is a great pity because the discs themselves are about as good a Rossini primer as the first-time buyer could get. I don't think Herbert von Karajan ever conducted Rossini in the opera house (he certainly recorded no complete operas) but with the overtures this doesn't seem to matter. One of the finest overture discs ever was conducted by Fritz Reiner who is unlikely to have had much time for him in the theatre, and a now-forgotten LP under Eduard van Beinum was a standard recommendation for many years. Karajan has the lightest of touches, with phrasing which is by turns delicate and vivacious and, yes, he even finds fun in the music, together with a real appreciation of Rossini's orchestration. The recording is a little odd and seems to have been made in a tunnel, but I quickly forgot about it. Here is as fine a selection of Rossini overtures as you'll get. Not long ago I was remarking that conductors of the past were more ready than those of today to give their all to relatively light repertoire. Karajan conducts here as if this is, for the moment, the only music that matters to him.

Charming as the string sonatas are (and Karajan is able to avoid them becoming heavy with a full complement of strings) perhaps the space occupied by these gifted teenage works would have been better given to further operatic extracts.

Some of the finest Rossini performances of recent years have been conducted by Claudio Abbado. There is a nervous brilliance to his interpretations which marks them out from the bonhomie of an old-timer like Vittorio Gui, but I intend simply to remark on the differences rather than indicate a preference. Certainly Abbado leaves you in no doubt that this is great music and not just a funny story made into an opera. The singers are well-chosen to fit into his conception, with Figaro's aria presented as a brilliant piece of music rather than a comic turn. Berganza is fine, but it must be said that if you go back to her 1959 version of Nacqui all'affanno from a recital conducted by Sir Alexander Gibson and recently included in Decca's Rossini Gala (458 247-2), her voice had a bloom in those days which had rather dried out by 1972. Still, the technical armoury remains and only critics are obliged to make these unchivalrous comparisons!

As I said above, it was Sutherland and Horne who brought about the Rossini revival and the Semiramide excerpts from a vintage 1966 set show why. It's practically all one long vocal firework after another. I was a little surprised to find Sutherland's timbre so dark at the beginning of Bel raggio lusinghier. Her 1960 performance has come my way twice recently, on the above-mentioned Rossini Gala and on the complete reissue in the Decca Legends series of her stunning recital "The Art of the Prima Donna" (467 115-2 and an indispensable purchase). This one is a semitone down! Since Richard Bonynge has always been a thorough student of the various versions of these operas I take it that the present version reflects Rossini's intentions, though I must say that the higher pitch suits Sutherland's voice better. Great singing all the same.

In the Stabat Mater Giulini finds reverence and drama where most conductors take Cuius animam, in particular, to be a perky little march. Gonzales's fresh-toned, if not always completely even, tenor gives pleasure. Only recently I was praising Ricciarelli's Turandot, but here she throws several hostages to fortune with squally high notes (though the top C is still excellent) and a bumpy line.

Despite reservations, the first-time Rossini buyer will get a very good idea of what the composer is all about. If you already have a disc of overtures, may I repeat my recommendation of the Rossini Gala?

Christopher Howell

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