Overtures and Preludes
Giuseppe VERDI
Les vêpres siciliennes: Overture (1855) [9:12]¹
La traviata: Prelude to Act I (1853) [4:37]¹
La traviata: Prelude to Act III (1853) [5:06]¹
La forza del destino: Overture (1862) [7:55]¹
Nabucco: Overture (1842) [8:17]²
Aïda: Prelude to Act I (1871) [4:10]²
Vincenzo BELLINI (1801-1835)
Norma: Overture (1831) [5:33]³
Norma: Prelude to Act III (1831) [3:49]*
Gioacchino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
La cenerentola: Overture (1817) [8:27]³
Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
Linda di Chamounix: Overture (1842) [7:09]³
Don Pasquale: Overture (1843) [8:44]³
¹Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, ² ³Philharmonia Orchestra, *Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala/Tullio Serafin
rec. ¹Kingsway Hall, 1959; Abbey Road Studio No. 1, ²February 1959, ³April 1961; *Teatro alla Scala, Milan, September 1960
MEDICI MASTERS MM008-2 [71:57]

A conductor who works extensively in the opera house is likely to develop a different feeling for the overtures and preludes, bound up with their role in the overall drama. The better items in this program, led by veteran conductor Serafin, bear this out.

The overture to La forza del destino is an effective piece when played for sheer brilliance; Serafin also finds dignity in it, along with a dramatic arc. Two passages in particular stand out. His treatment of the clarinet theme at 4:00 is unusually relaxed - Verdi requests Allegro brillante - but the player has time to "sing", and the textures are spacious. Some pages later, at 5:08, the conductor draws a sharp, and effective, contrast between the solemn brass chorale and the strings' energetic answering phrases. Such insights compensate for some stiff transitional ritards earlier in the piece.

It's good to have the two Norma selections, though it's clear why they don't get much play on their own, even on disc. The overture is more a series of loosely bound dramatic gestures, proceeding in fits and starts, than a full-fledged, stand-alone concert piece. Similarly, the third act prelude is beautiful, but, not being followed here by the third act, it fades away inconclusively. The Philharmonia is rhythmically alert in the overture, while the Scala forces bring comparable polish to the prelude.

The Donizetti overtures, too, are a nice change of pace from the familiar Rossini. The lithe urgency with which Serafin invests the body of the Linda di Chamounix carries the listener past the variously skittish, unkempt timing of all the rolling upbeats. A similar energy infuses the cheerful, and neater, Don Pasquale, once past the opening, where the cello soloist seems uncertain about the rubato. Here is where players who understand the style can make a difference: on an Erato LP program (Musical Heritage Society in the U.S.), the Monte Carlo Opera Orchestra - a lesser ensemble, to be sure - gave Claudio Scimone more comfortably idiomatic playing.

Among the other Philharmonia selections, the Aïda is pleasant and unexceptionable. In the otherwise well-ordered Nabucco, Serafin inexplicably slams on the brakes at 6:27, as if to allow for more time to articulate - did the Philharmonia strings really need it? - and never quite recovers the initial tempo. Another such distracting meno mosso, beginning at 3:40 of the Cenerentola, sounds more an interpretive than a practical choice, but it kills the momentum equally well.

Finally, there's no getting around it: the first three Verdi selections are just awful. The same RPO that played the Forza so confidently here can't seem to understand the conductor's beat, or his musical intentions. The double pickups in the Vespri introduction are nervous, and rarely together; in the tuttis, the violins consistently race ahead of everyone else. The two Traviata preludes move more slowly, but the textures are that much more exposed, as is the tentative ensemble. The violins sound lovely when inhabiting the higher positions but too much else goes by the board. In the third-act prelude, Serafin takes the big theme broadly. At first, it suggests sustained concentration, but the continuity begins to lapse - within phrases as well as between them - and the music doesn't cohere.

I can't really recommend this program as a whole. Indeed, I'm surprised the first three selections were passed for LP release in the first place. That said, there's some good music, and some good music-making, to be found. It's your call.

Stephen Francis Vasta

Your call but I can't really recommend this program as a whole.