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Great Comedy Overtures
Ferdinand HÉROLD (1791-1833)
Zampa (1831) [8:27]
Otto NICOLAI (1810-1849)
Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor (1849) [8:22]
Ermanno WOLF-FERRARI (1876-1948)
Il segreto di Susanna (1909) [3:06]
Ambroise THOMAS (1811-1896)
Mignon (1866) [8:24]
Emil Nikolaus von REZNIČEK (1860-1945)
Donna Diana (1894) [6:01]
Friedrich von FLOTOW (1812-1883)
Martha (1847) [8:24]
Daniel-François-Esprit AUBER (1782-1871)
Fra Diavolo (1830) [8:13]
Albert LORTZING (1801-1851)
Zar und Zimmermann (1837) [6:05]
Domenico CIMAROSA (1749-1801)
Il matrimonio segreto (1792) [6:43]
Adolphe ADAM (1803-1856)
Si j’étais roi (1852) [7:18]
Peter CORNELIUS (1824-1874) (arr. Felix Mottl)
Der Barbier von Bagdad (1858) [8:39]
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Lance Friedel
rec. 14-16 January 2014, Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, UK
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from
Pdf booklet included
NAXOS 8.573418 [79:42]

Whether it’s opera buffa, opéra comique or Spieloper you’ll find it all in this mouth-watering box of bon-bons. The last time I was so tempted was by a 2-CD Eloquence set entitled Overtures in Hi-Fi, with Albert Wolff conducting the Orchestre de L’Opéra-Comique, Paris and the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra; it features much of the repertoire recorded here (review). It’s said that French ensembles tend to play this music better than anyone else, but then the RSNO have been described by The Times as ‘the best French orchestra north of Calais’.

The conductor here is Lance Friedel, an American who has a fairly wide repertoire that embraces the likes of Carl Nielsen and Bohuslav Martinů. His only other Naxos recording to date is a Josef Bohuslav Foerster collection, which Jonathan Woolf welcomed back in 2006 (review). Is Friedel slumming it here? Perhaps, but seconds into Hérold’s Zampa overture it’s clear he is having a ball; after all, there’s nothing like a bit of seduction and flirtation with the supernatural to get the pulse racing. And that’s exactly what happens in this feisty overture, played here with tremendous brio and bite.

Keep the sal volatile handy, though, for there’s a lot more where that came from. We move to Germany for Nicolai’s Merry Wives, which finds the RSNO in sparkling, fun-filled form. Friedel paces the music well and ensemble is crisp throughout. This rep needs a light touch – even a feel for comic timing – and by and large this conductor is up to the task. The sound is decent, with a brightish treble that suits this music; the bass is fairly well extended, too. A little more warmth and body wouldn’t have gone amiss, but that’s a minor quibble when the music-making is as infectious as this.

The Venetian-born composer Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari settled in Germany, where much of his work was first performed. Susanna’s Secret is that she enjoys the occasional puff, and in Friedel’s hands this overture is witty and spirited. As so often with themed compendia of this kind not all the material is of such good quality; for me at least the French composer Ambroise Thomas’s opera Mignon tends to outstay its welcome. That said, there are some diaphanous harp sounds in this overture; also, the RSNO play elegantly and with real feeling.

The Austrian Emil von Rezniček’s buoyant overture to his 1894 opera Donna Diana gets a robust reading – shades of Suppé, surely – and the RSNO are as nimble as one could wish. I miss the Gallic hauteur that Wolff brings to the piece, though; the vintage Decca sound is pretty good too. As for the German Friedrich von Flotow, his overture to Martha occasionally reminds me of his compatriot Giacomo Meyerbeer, who did very for himself in Paris. The side drum is nicely caught and there’s some fine horn playing. Oh, and what a grand, grand finale.

The side drum that opens François Auber’s Fra Diavolo is even more thrilling. Now this really is grand opera, and Friedel and his players give the music all the amplitude it needs. Those memorable, Rossini-like tunes and the overture’s martial passages are superbly rendered. As for Albert Lortzing’s Tsar and Carpenter it's a good example of the German Spieloper, which combines elements of the French opéra comique and the Italian opera buffa. It can seem a little po-faced at times, but Friedel gives it plenty of bounce, especially in that most emphatic sign-off.

We go back to the late eighteenth century for the Italian composer Domenico Cimarosa’s Secret Marriage. It’s classical proportions are nicely preserved, and Friedel makes no attempt to dress the work in Romantic garb. Rhythms are pin-sharp, climaxes are sensibly scaled and the whole thing proceeds at a very pleasing pace. After that Adolphe Adam’s If I were king adds a soupçon of exoticism to the programme; the RSNO dispense it with charm and spontaneity. The pounding tuttis are a tad relentless, but otherwise this is a very entertaining performance of a surprisingly danceable overture.

The Mainz-born Peter Cornelius’s The Barber of Baghdad was premiered in Weimar under the baton of no less a luminary than Franz Liszt. Cornelius died before he could complete an overture to replace the original prelude; the overture played here is an arrangement by the composer Felix Mottl. It's an attractive piece, although I find it workmanlike at times. Still, it’s one of the few sub-par items on this otherwise well-planned album.

A most enjoyable confection; I wouldn’t be without the Albert Wolff set, though.

Dan Morgan

Naxos offer this release in a number of forms; on their high-resolution streaming service, as a CD, as a Blu-ray Audio disc and as a download (mo3, 16/44.1 and 24/96). Anyone in the recorded-music business knows that maximising consumer choice can’t hurt, although the slow take-up of BD-A suggests that format could soon go the way of DVD-A. What puzzled me was the simultaneous release of a 2xHD download of this album on eClassical, at identical resolutions and prices. There is a difference though; 2xHD convert Naxos's 24/96 files to analogue and then to 24/192, before issuing the results in downsampled 24/96 form. No doubt the presence of DXD, DSD and tube pre-amps in the audio chain shapes the resulting sonics.

That's a rather convoluted process, but does it actually enhance the sound? Well, I’ve only reviewed one of 2xHD’s Naxos re-masters before and I was much impressed by the gains in general dynamism and sparkle. Intrigued I downloaded the 2xHD version of Zampa and Susanna's Secret and did a quick A/B comparison. Straightaway I noticed instrumental separation is better and that the bass is slightly extended; the latter was confirmed by spectrum analysis. Also, the 2xHD files are slightly louder. Overall, there’s an increase in clarity, and that underlines the crispness of ensemble.

I wouldn’t say the difference is vast, but it is perceptible. On the evidence of those two tracks I’d probably opt for the 2xHD download, as I prefer the way the music is presented. However, it's worth remembering that in general the original Naxos files are nowhere near as subtle or as sophisticated as those from more upmarket labels. In that respect both the Naxos and 2xHD downloads are expensive for what they are. On eClassical they're priced at the equivalent of £14.38, whereas on Qobuz the high-res Naxos files are pitched at a mere £6.83. So, it really does pay to shop around. DM