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Italian Orchestral Works
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Preludio sinfonico (1882) [9:47]
Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Bassoon concerto (c. 1845?) [18:21]
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Capriccio for bassoon and orchestra (1838?) [12:57]
Niccolò PAGANINI (1782-1840)
Concertino for horn, bassoon and orchestra (1831) [11:32]
Ottorino RESPIGHI (1879-1936)
La boutique fantasque, ballet after Rossini ed. Sargent (1919) [22:40]
Patrick De Ritis (bassoon)
José Vicente Castelló (horn)
Würzburg Philharmonic Orchestra/Enrico Calesso
rec. Konzertsaal der Hochschüle für Musik, Würzburg, Germany, 11 December 2014
NAXOS 8.573382 [75:17]

Reference to David Truslove’s useful booklet notes and to Internet sources indicates that the Würzburg Philharmonic is a particularly versatile orchestra. As well as participating regularly in its home city's annual month-long Mozart Festival - Germany's oldest one dedicated to that composer - and presenting a programme of other concerts throughout the year, it regularly supports staged performances of opera, operetta, musicals and ballet at Würzburg's Mainfranken Theater. It has also collaborated to fruitful effect with jazz musicians. Its conductor on this disc, Enrico Calesso, is the orchestra's general music director and, as evidenced here, enjoys an effective rapport with his musicians.

One might have expected that Naxos would, in the usual way, have commissioned the orchestra to record a specific work or two for its ever-expanding composer-based catalogue. This disc instead presents us with a recording of one of the Würzburg Philharmonic’s live public concerts. Dating from December 2014, it offered its audience a mixed programme that comes under the portmanteau cover title Orchestral works – or, according to the CD’s spine, the more specific Italian orchestral works.
While many recording companies save money these days by taping material at live concerts rather than in the studio, most go on to edit out any audience applause, as well as unwelcome coughing and spluttering, before marketing the final disc. This release, however, retains the applause at the end of each work – a practice that I can’t recall coming across before on a Naxos CD other than those of historical concert and opera radio broadcasts from the 1930s and 1940s.

That issue of applause can be a contentious one. Some listeners have no problem at all with it, especially when a performance has some justified claim to classic or historically important status, in which case that preserved ovation offers a useful reminder of that fact. Others, however, see it at best as an unwelcome intrusion - and at worst a real error in taste, considering that recorded music is best presented in as pure and "timeless" a manner as possible and without any audience appreciation linking it overtly and permanently to one specific occasion and venue.

Leaving that whole issue to would-be buyers’ personal preferences, what about the more important one of the quality of the musical performances? The disc doesn’t get off, I think, to the most positive of starts. Perhaps Puccini's Preludio sinfonico was deliberately included in order to demonstrate the orchestra's stylistic versatility but, as it is, it sits rather oddly in a programme that's otherwise characterised by light-hearted musical vivacity. Moreover, it proves in practice not to be the most attention-grabbing way to open proceedings. This straightforward and somewhat emotionally detached performance offers little to strengthen its claim to our attention.

More positive qualities rapidly emerge, however, in the following pieces by Rossini, Verdi and Paganini, even though none of them attempts to be anything more than a lightweight, airy, playful concoction designed to put smiles on audiences' faces. All feature the accomplished bassoonist Patrick De Ritis and he is joined in the Paganini by the equally talented and engaging horn-player José Vicente Castelló. The putative Rossini concerto emerges as the least characterful of the three works on offer, although it does finally come to life in its vivacious closing pages. More consistent pleasure is to be gained from Verdi's capriccio, an engagingly rhythmic concoction that the young composer sensibly kept relatively succinct and to the point. The Paganini concertino is another well crafted piece and I was pleased to make its acquaintance in this attractive performance. The Würzburg orchestra’s accompaniment is consistently sensitive and appropriately scaled. Conductor Calesso ensures that everything from Verdi's occasional passages of orchestral bel canto to the playful jauntiness of Rossini's closing rondo emerges sharply focused and crystal clear.

The skittish, lighthearted mood continues in the concert's closing offering, the concert suite that Sir Malcolm Sargent re-arranged from Respighi's 1919 ballet La boutique fantasque, itself a re-working of various pieces by Rossini. It was only a few months ago that I reviewed a performance of the same piece conducted by Sargent himself (Guild Historical GHCD 2421) - a thoroughly enjoyable disc that I later included as one of my MusicWeb International Recordings of the Year. This new performance is distinguished by its generally more deliberate approach: Calesso brings in the mazurka, for instance, at 2:59 - as opposed to Sargent's 2:16 - and the final galop at 2:42, thereby adding a full 45 seconds to Flash Harry's own vivacissimo 1:57. Both conductors' chosen tempi would, however, be appropriate to danced performances and I enjoyed hearing both their takes on Respighi's colourful score.

With soloists, orchestra and conductor all acquitting themselves well, this recorded public concert is generally an enjoyable experience. I'm not sure, however, whether that's sufficient reason in itself to have justified its commitment to CD without some judicious editing – maybe to remove the audience applause and perhaps to rearrange the order of the tracks. I make no claim whatsoever to the expertise of an A & R man, yet it's hard to identify a target audience for this disc as it stands. With these particular performers to hand, wouldn't a CD completely dedicated to, say, Romantic era works for bassoon and orchestra have been more apt? On the basis of what we have been presented with here, it would certainly have been worth hearing.

Rob Maynard
Previous reviews: John Whitmore



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