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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)
Der Barbier von Bagdad (1858) (arr. Felix Mottl) [8:39]
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Lance Friedel
Rec. 2014, Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow
NAXOS 8.573418 [79:44]

One of the more successful labels specialising in re-released material these days is Eloquence. As many readers will have already discovered, its extensive catalogue offers an opportunity to rediscover a wealth of forgotten gems from the Decca, Philips and Deutsche Grammophon archives.

Many of those Eloquence re-releases have been of orchestral lollipops - overtures and brief orchestral pieces that were very popular sixty or seventy years ago. There was clearly a market for such repertoire in those days when music education was more widespread in schools and when radio purveyed an almost constant backdrop of "light music", a surprisingly large proportion of which derived from classical sources. In an era when the man in the street could probably whistle a passable account of Grieg's "In the hall of the mountain king", it wasn't perhaps so odd that fans who put pianist Winifred Atwell's Let's have another party at the top of the hit parade could also appreciate her "straight" and very creditable recording of the same composer's piano concerto with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

With the increasing polarisation between "popular" and "classical" music over the past fifty years, many of those light pieces have tended to fall into a neglected limbo, perceived as too highbrow by the young yet too frivolous and inconsequential by devotees of more "serious" repertoire. As a result, recording companies in general seem to have considered them uncommercial propositions. Thank goodness, then, for the always enterprising Naxos A&R team.

My colleague Dan Morgan has already reviewed a 24/96 download of this disc (see here). He enjoyed it a great deal, describing it as a "mouth-watering box of bon-bons" and "a most enjoyable confection".

It's interesting that both those images relate to sugar and to sweets. We all know that too much of either will make you sick - though I don't think that that's why, in the course of his review, Dan recommended keeping the sal volatile handy while listening. Images of confectionery subconsciously imply that we're supposed to find a collection like this something of a guilty pleasure, to be consumed like a box of tempting candies - only sparingly and even surreptitiously in these Health & Safety-conscious times when obesity is a national bête noire. In real life, though, there's often a great deal of innocent pleasure to be had by sitting down to watch a favourite film on TV while munching through a bar or two of chocolate or a packet of toffees. So don't worry about the cholesterol. I too loved this blast from the past.

I won't repeat Dan's thorough account of the disc's contents but merely report that I agree with his conclusions, with a single proviso. Like him, I own the Australian Eloquence double CD set Overtures in Hi-fi from Albert Wolff and two Parisian orchestras that are clearly very experienced in this sort of repertoire. As its MusicWeb review, also from Dan, points out, the typically expert Decca recordings, a mixture of late mono and early stereo, certainly are remarkable for their age (see here).

Nonetheless, comparing that disc with this Naxos issue, I find myself inclining towards the new release, for music like this, deliberately written to bring a smile to the face and expertly executed, will only be enhanced even further by the best possible digital engineering that brings out all its inherent sparkle. That's certainly what it is accorded here, with engineer Phil Rowlands taking full advantage of Glasgow's Henry Wood Hall's fine acoustics to produce crystal-clear recordings where every instrument comes clearly through some very busy orchestral writing.

Even the finest engineering can't turn a sow's ear into a silk purse but no such transformation is even necessary here, as American conductor Lance Friedel lavishes the greatest care and attention on pieces that could easily just have been run through. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra plays expertly and with considerable panache and these playful accounts of “gorgeous tunes, brilliant orchestration and race-to-the-finish endings”, as the Naxos promotional text puts it, will certainly bring a smile to all but the most curmudgeonly faces.

While it may not plumb any great emotional depths, this disc certainly fills the bill for those frequent occasions when something rather lighter is required. Taken as such and marketed at Naxos's usual competitive price, it is well nigh irresistible.

Rob Maynard

Another review ...

It would be hard to claim that all of the Overtures included here are either great or to comedies, but it is probably as good a name for the disc as any other. What we have is a selection of eleven delightful works, some familiar or even over-familiar (such as Zampa and The Merry Wives of Windsor) and others (such as Zar und Zimmermann and Der Barbier von Bagdad) more rarely encountered. All are available in other collections or even in recordings of the complete works but all make sense heard in isolation. Fortunately they are varied in character so that it is possible, if not desirable, to listen to them in succession without too much of a feeling of the same gestures being endlessly repeated.

For me the two most interesting pieces here are the Overtures to Il Segreto di Susanna and Donna Diana. In both the sheer musical ingenuity and invention is astonishing. Interestingly they are also the shortest works here, but then long-winded jokes are seldom very funny. Unfortunately they receive perhaps the weakest performances here, being played in a lively but under-characterised way, with the gradually faster scale in the delightful introduction to Donna Diana poorly related to each other. This lack of characterisation is found elsewhere, and there is a tendency at times for speed to take the place of real rhythmic thrust and a lack of real forward momentum.

The recording is clear and the booklet notes good, but these do not make up for a generally somewhat routine standard overall. If you do not have these works in your collection and want them as a group this could be a useful disc but otherwise it is probably better to look to the many other collections of such overtures.

John Sheppard

Previous review: Dan Morgan


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