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Intermezzi del Verismo
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Preludio Sinfonico in A [8:38]
Le villi - Act II La Tragenda [3:55]
Manon Lescaut - Act III Intermezzo [4:43]
Suor Angelica - Intermezzo [2:22]
Pietro MASCAGNI (1863-1945)
Cavalleria Rusticana - Intermezzo [3:25]
L'amico Fritz - Intermezzo [3:57]
Le maschere - Sinfonia [7:27]
Ruggero LEONCAVALLO (1858-1919)
Pagliacci - Intermezzo [3:02]
Umberto GIORDANO (1867-1948)
Fedora - Act II Intermezzo [2:16]
Francesco CILEA (1866-1950)
Adriana Lecouvreur - Act II Intermezzo [2:38]
Ermanno WOLF-FERRARI (1876-1948)
I gioielli della Madonna - Intermezzo II [3:37]
Italo MONTEMEZZI (1875-1952)
L'amore dei Tre Re - Act III Preludio [4:27]
Philharmonisches Orchester Graz/Lodovico Zocche
rec. 10-15 February 2014, Oper Graz, Germany
CPO 777953-2 [51:11]

In many ways this feels like a rather pleasantly old-fashioned disc. When programmes groan under the weight of concepts and grand schemes it is rather refreshing to come across a disc of brief but appealing operatic excerpts. Nothing presented is exceptionally rare but the combination of a dozen unrelated pieces is unique. My main observation would be that the choices in relation to the performances are 'safe'. Perfectly good, nicely engineered by CPO as is the norm but without many if any moments when you catch your breath.

A case in point are the four Puccini excerpts that open the disc. First up is the early Preludio Sinfonico - not a piece that fits the title of the disc if we are being picky. Certainly it is in the style of later intermezzi that Puccini wrote and it has proved popular on disc with numerous recordings - often coupled with the Capriccio Sinfonico which is omitted here. Try any of the competing performances: Chailly in Berlin on Decca, Pappano on Warner/EMI in London or Muti at La Scala on Sony and you have much more dramatic performances played by superior orchestras - bigger string sections. This from Graz is not 'bad' just rather lack-lustre and wan. The least familiar excerpt is the Sinfonia to Mascagni's Le maschere. In its time - 1901 - this work merited six simultaneous premieres and the excerpt here is of interest in that it inhabits much more of a neo-classical idiom than one might expect of Mascagni or verismo composers in general. Again I have a nagging suspicion that for all the neatness of the performance here it lacks the wit and sparkle that surely is required.

A 1989 Naxos disc from Ondrej Leonard with the Czech RSO Bratislava (8.550240) duplicates half of the programme chosen here but beats it in pure planning terms by being roughly twelve minutes longer and by including more genuine rarities as well as the regulation sprinkling of 'pops'. Nobody would claim that Naxos disc to be the height of sophistication but it strikes me that it inhabits the emotional world of verismo more compellingly than this new disc. In other contexts I have enjoyed every single excerpt on offer here - more. There is a curious literalness to the playing which fails to make any of the pieces take wing. Conductor Lodovico Zocche has an impressive CV although curiously it does not seem to have been updated since 2005 - and his website mentions nothing later than 2010.

This feels like a strangely un-CPO type disc - the repertoire is resolutely mainstream with little of the flair and indeed passion that marks out so many of this label's best discs. A return to a liner-note of opaque gobbledygook compounds the disappointment as does the running time of just fifty-one minutes. The disc is engineered by and it is perfectly good. The blend of the orchestra is effectively achieved - the orchestra makes a good but not exceptionally fine sound. As recorded the strings are accurate but without the weight or opulence of the finest ensembles. This is a case of a disc of modest achievements struggling to justify its purchase in an ever-more competitive marketplace.

Nick Barnard



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