Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Complete Overtures - 3
Maometto Secondo: Overture (1820; 1822 Venice version) [11:15]
L'Italiana in Algieri: Overture (1813) [8:01]
La Cenerentola: Overture (1817) [8:09]
Grand 'overture obbligata a contrabbasso (1807-10) [7:14]
Matilde di Shabran, ossia Bellezza, e cuor di ferro (1821) [9:30]
La cambiale di matrimonio (1810) [5:27]
Tancredi (1813) [6:06]
Prague Sinfonia Orchestra/Christian Benda
rec. 2011/12, Kulturní dům Barikádniků & Produkční dům Vzlet, Prague
NAXOS 8.570935 [55:42]
This is an agreeable program of Rossini overtures, sprinkling a couple of rarities among the better-known pieces -- and, of those, only L'Italiana approaches the warhorse status of The Barber of Seville and William Tell.
One of the novelties isn't even an opera overture. The early Grand'overture obbligata a contrabbasso , despite the title, doesn’t give the orchestral contrabasses any particular importance. Though an early, student work, it already adheres to the composer’s standard three-part format, but enlivens the recapitulation with discreet added counterpoint – a nice touch. Matilde di Shabran crashes into existence on a tutti diminished seventh; this shortly resolves to the major, but the ensuing introduction is searching and unstable, and a few Schubert-style ‘detour’ chords spice up the home stretch. Maometto Secondo and the more familiar pieces vigorously follow Rossini’s regular patterns.
The choice of orchestra and conductor is apt for the material. I missed the first two instalments of Christian Benda’s Rossini series -- just as, when I reviewed his second disc of Schubert overtures (Naxos 8.570329), I’d missed his first; here, he mostly displays a sure sense of style, maintaining clear, springy rhythms or projecting expansive lyricism as required. The allegros, even when quicker than customary, are always buoyant. In the introduction to Maometto Secondo, however, he self-consciously reins in the woodwind soli: the oboe is stiff rather than expressive; the clarinet wants to move things along, but can’t, and ends with another laboured ritard. Even in the sprightly, characterful L'Italiana, recorded months later, the passage at 1:02 feels, not slow, but stodgy. (The piccolo, more prominent and exposed than I remember hearing elsewhere, deserves commendation for the spankingly tuned solos.) Matilde’s tempo instability, on the other hand, is of the opposite kind: Benda moves faster, not during the long ‘Rossini crescendo’ -- practically blasphemous -- but at its start, and kicks things slightly faster again in several subsequent paragraphs.
The Prague Sinfonia’s chamber-sized string sections make for generally clear textures, within which the winds maintain an active presence: contrasts between winds and pizzicato strings in L'Italiana and La cambiale di matrimonio are fetching. In the Grand'overture, however, playing that’s too loud -- in demeanour as well as in volume -- fritters away that advantage in thick, assertive textures. (Conversely, the equally unfamiliar Matilde goes with a nice dynamic variety and correct internal balances.) While there’s also plenty of tonal weight in tutti -- nothing ever sounds ‘missing’ -- but the Italiana climaxes could have used a few more low strings; the analogous passages in Matilde, doubled by trombones, come off rather better.
The sound is excellent -- though the percussion in the final chords of L'Italiana is needlessly explosive -- making this recommendable to those who, like me, prefer already-‘curated’ sequences to laboriously assembled playlists. For those who enjoy digging through the analogue archives, Gamba’s venerable early-stereo Decca album offers just five popular overtures, including Barber and Tell, crisply played and stunningly registered.
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is Principal Conductor of Lighthouse Opera in New York. (lighthouseopera.org)