In days long gone, concerts often followed a predictable pattern of overture-concerto-symphony. But many of those tuneful and then-familiar overtures - Zampa, Poet and Peasant, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Donna Diana and the rest - are hardly ever heard any more. When, once in a while, an enterprising conductor does try to resurrect interest in them, it is more often by releasing a CD than by programming live concert performances (see here, here and here).
On this new Naxos release, Antoni Wit and his Warsaw orchestra offer a selection of theatrical curtain-raisers from the mid-nineteenth century Polish composer Moniuszko, presenting them as stand-alone pieces. The sole exception is Bajka, presented first on this disc, which differs from its fellows in that it was written as a concert overture rather than as the prelude to any sort of longer staged production.
Moniuszko, little known today outside of his homeland, was nothing if not eclectic in his choice of subject matter. At one end of the emotional spectrum we have - shades of Giselle - the familiar nineteenth-century melodrama of a naive peasant girl who is seduced and then cast off by a wicked and no doubt moustache-twirling aristocrat (Halka). At the other lies the comic opera tale Straszny dwor. In between, we find all sorts of subject matter. In an era characterised by accelerating industrial and commercial development and the embryonic growth of a capitalist middle class, it does seem as though the composer and his audience were fascinated by the themes of class and class-conflict. Thus, Paul Conway, on whose useful and informative booklet notes I am reliant for details, suggests that while Flis portrays the idyllic life-style of Poland's new bourgeoisie, Verbum nobile gently lampoons the country's gentry class and Hrabina directs its satire at wider national social divisions. In that preoccupation, Moniuszko was certainly in tune with his times: within a decade of all three of those operas, Karl Marx's Das Kapital (1867) put forward the literally revolutionary hypothesis that class struggle is the key motor of social development, suggesting that Moniuszko may even have been, to recycle a phrase that Professor David Daiches originally applied to Jane Austen, a Marxist before Marx.
Putting speculative political theorising aside, however, the ten very effectively orchestrated compositions on this disc - all composed within the span of a couple of decades - are, in general, tuneful and attractive. They can also be, though, somewhat episodic in construction and, at base, lack the last degree of individual flair and melodic memorability that might have elevated them to the status of such familiar foot-tappers as Light Cavalry or even Morning, Noon and Night in Vienna.
Given the longer overtures' tendency towards disjointedness, it is the shorter and less ambitious ones that come across as more immediately appealing. Verbum nobile is a concise, jolly piece that maintains its character throughout and doesn't outstay its welcome in the slightest. Similarly, and at even shorter length, both the atmospheric Straszny dwor and the lively and colourfully orchestrated Jawnuta tantalise the ear and whet the listener's appetite for the stage works to come.
Nineteenth century composers seem to have had something of an obsession with Cervantes' Don Quixote, and Moniuszko was no exception. His own contribution to the genre, Nowy Don Kiszot, begins slowly but soon builds up an appropriately jaunty head of steam suggestive of the genial comedy to come. Kochanka hetmanska is another lively and attractive score and its tone certainly suggests that nineteenth century Poles took a rather less censorious view of adultery than did their peers in prudish Victorian Britain.
No less an authority than Hans von Bülow is said to have used the word “brilliant” in describing the overture to Halka, the most popular of Moniuszko’s operas in Poland to this day. The overture is certainly dramatic and has an exciting conclusion but I suspect that one needs to know the opera itself in order to appreciate it to the full. The overture to Paria – a tale set in exotic India – is an enjoyable enough piece, but its polonaise and mazurka rhythms suggest anything but its supposed setting. It is worth noting, however, in Moniuszko’s defence, that he was by no means alone in that sort of thing, for the sub-continent as musically depicted in Minkus’s ballet masterpiece La Bayadère is similarly peopled with characters whose natural default rhythm appears to be the Viennese waltz.
At 13:26 in length and with no opera narrative on which to peg it, Moniuszko’s somewhat diffuse and certainly over-long Bajka struggles to make much of an impression. The self-indulgent composer might well have used his red pen a little more here, and I wonder whether it was really the right choice to select it to open the disc.
Naxos’s oft-stated ambition of exploring overlooked musical byways is, on its own, more than enough justification for this new disc, particularly when the pieces are all played with such accomplishment and obvious affection. None of these overtures is, though, likely to supersede The bartered bride, William Tell or a dozen such others in music-lovers’ affections, so that while they make pleasant enough listening they are certainly far from an essential addition to any collection.
Previous review: Rob Barnett