Overtures in Hi-Fi
CD 1
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
La Princesse Jaune (1872)* [6:15]
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Benvenuto Cellini, Op. 23 (1838)* [10:26]
Le corsaire, Op. 21 (1844) [8:01]
Le roi Lear, Op. 4 (1831) [16:10]
Le carnaval romain, Op. 9 (1843) [8:34]
Les francs-juges, Op. 3 (1826) [12:45]
Adolphe ADAM (1803-1856)
Si j’étais roi (1852) [7:27]
CD 2
Ferdinand HÉROLD (1791-1833)
Zampa (1831) [8:17]
Emil Nikolaus REZNICEK (1860-1945)
Donna Diana (1894, rev. 1933) [5:51]
Franz Von SUPPÉ (1819-1895)
Pique Dame (1864) [8:17]
Otto NICOLAI (1810-1849)
Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor (1845-1846) [9:00]
Daniel-François-Esprit AUBER (1782-1871)
Le domino noir (1837) [8:10]
La muette de Portici (Masaniello) (1827) [8:17]
Le cheval de bronze (1835) [7:41]
Fra diavolo (1829) [8:32]
Les diamants de la couronne (1841) [9:05]
*Orchestre de L’Opéra-Comique, Paris/Albert Wolff
Paris Conservatoire Orchestra/Albert Wolff
rec. La Maison de la Mutualité, Paris, France, June 1951 (La Princesse Jaune, Benvenuto Cellini), September 1954 (Masaniello, Le cheval de bronze, Fra diavolo, Les diamants de la couronne), June 1955 (Le Corsaire, Le roi Lear, Le carnaval romain, Les francs-juges), November 1957 (Si j’e´tais roi, Zampa, Donna Diana, Pique Dame, Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor, Le domino noir). ADD mono/stereo
DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 2385 [70:19 + 74:00]

The term ‘Hi-Fi’ dates from the 1950s, when Columbia launched the LP, succeeding where RCA had failed twenty years before. Decca made their first stereo recording in 1954 – Ernest Ansermet and L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in a programme that included the overture to Benvenuto Cellini. I’ve reviewed several of the Ansermet sets from Eloquence and, almost without exception, they’re very desirable indeed. Music-lovers will remember just how sought after these LPs were; the works at the heart of this set of ‘hi-fi overtures’ made up one such classic.

The conductor Albert Wolff, appointed director of the Opéra-Comique, Paris in 1922, makes a strong case for this music which, with the exception of the Berlioz, is largely ignored today. And although Saint-Saëns’ The Yellow Princess falls into this category the overture gets an effervescent outing, as does that to Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini. Both are in mono, but one’s ears soon adapt to the narrow soundstage and limited dynamics; in any case, the ease and authority of the music-making transcends such limitations. The Saint-Saëns isn’t particularly memorable, but Cellini is imbued with a an arresting sense of drama. It may seem a tad deliberate at the outset, but there’s a marvellous ebb and flow here that surges to a very high tide in the thumping finale. The goosebump-inducing bass drum isn’t there but, goodness, everything else most certainly is.

The shift to stereo in Le corsaire isn’t as much of a shock as one might expect, testimony to the high standards Decca achieved in the dying days of mono. That said, the natural, more spacious recording is most welcome; wiry strings are now silky and – voilà – Decca has discovered bass! The scurrying strings and very audible timps are essential ingredients in this thrilling performance, which has an unforced momentum that’s impossible to resist. And just listen to that virtuoso brass playing – wonderful stuff.

As for the dark-toned, more inward world of Le roi Lear, Wolff and his band are no less engaging and insightful. The lower strings have a richness and body that’s quite exceptional for a recording of this vintage. That said, I did find the dirge-like passage that begins at 4:37 surprisingly soupy and sentimental; it’s most disconcerting, given that Wolff’s Berlioz is otherwise clear-eyed and purposeful. It’s a minor detour, for the rest of this overture – with its many echoes of the Symphonie fantastique – is as dramatic as one could wish for.

Ditto Le carnaval romain, with its delicate pizzicati at the start and animated tunes that build to an impassioned apotheosis. The sonorous brass in Les francs-juges have seldom sounded so glorious, the rhythms so supple. And listen out for that discreet bass drum, superbly caught. The first disc ends with Adam’s Si j’étais roi (If I were king). It has a balletic delicacy and charm that’s most beguiling, and – despite a slight tizziness in the tuttis – the Decca engineers have done a spectacularly good job here.

The second disc is no less enticing. The Rossinian point and sparkle of the overture to Hérold’s Zampa is a delight, even if the brass fanfares are a little blatant at times. And although it’s forgotten, Reznicek’s comic opera Donna Diana is blessed with a terrific overture that’s more widely known. It’s apt to sound like Suppé in places, but what it lacks in subtlety it more than makes up for in rhythmic verve. Speaking of Suppé, Pique Dame gets a very polished performance here. Not quite in the same league as Charles Dutoit’s on Decca 414 408-2, but there’s a Gallic hauteur to Wolff’s reading that’s entirely apt. As for the brass playing, it’s superb throughout.

Very occasionally – as in the quiet introduction to Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor – the recording does betray its age with a higher than usual noise floor. That’s soon forgotten in the stream of sweet-toothed tunes that follow. Indeed, there’s an echt-Viennese lilt to the rhythms that’s most endearing, the French orchestra playing with real character. They’re no less assured in the Auber, although the tuttis in Le domino noir are a tad fierce. The last four pieces are in perfectly good mono; Masoniello the original title for La muette de Portici and Le cheval de bronze are suitably thrustful, the bass nicely weighted. The snare drum rolls and solo trumpet in Fra diavolo are splendid too, the musical frippery of Les diamants de la couronne paraded with more style than the music’s rumty-tum character might deserve.

Musically the Saint-Saëns and Auber pieces are probably the weakest here, but the rest of this collection more than makes up for that. And lest you think 140 minutes of this music amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how easy it is to listen to both discs in one sitting. This is joyous music-making and the recordings really are ‘Hi-Fi’ in the best sense; the liner-notes are good too. Indeed, the whole package is just too tempting to resist.

Dan Morgan

Joyous music-making … just too tempting to resist.