Rossini: Overtures (CD review)
Maestro Carlo Maria Giulini (1914-2005) was always one of the most-elegant conductors in the business, giving us performances of the utmost style and refinement, although often with a surplus of excitement. Call it cultured emotion or sophisticated thrills. Here, EMI offer examples of his creativity leading the Philharmonia Orchestra in a generous collection of nine overtures by Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868), culled from the company's back catalogue and totaling over seventy-seven minutes. On a mid-price disc, one could hardly ask for more.
The program begins with La scala di seta, which Giulini takes at a fairly brisk pace. This is playing of a passionate nature, yet without ever seeming rushed. Under Giulini, the overture is both stimulating and amusing. Next is Il signor Brushino, which the conductor takes at a more moderate tempo, all the better to enjoy the overture's famous tapping of the bows (which here sounds more hushed than we commonly hear it), yet with a pleasant, zippy bounce. Tancredi may be the least well known of the overtures on the disc, but that doesn't stop Giulini from giving it a thorough outing and presenting the music in a grand, sparkling manner.
L'italiana in Algeri is one of my favorite Rossini overtures, so it has always pleased me to hear how well Giulini handles it. There is a greater sense of orchestral depth here as well, which goes a long way toward one's enjoyment of the music. The popular Il barbiere de Siviglia also benefits from an increased stage depth, helping with the realism of the performance. Giulini conducts it about as well as I've ever heard it. Then, we get La Cenerentola, Rossini's musical idea of the Cinderella story not exactly in the traditional fairy-tale mode; Giulini makes sure the piece gets the big orchestral treatment it demands.
Finally, speaking of things big, the album ends with three of Rossini's late overtures--the biggest, longest, grandest of the lot. La gazza landra (The Thieving Magpie) is as witty and lively in this interpretation as one could want, yet Giulini also conveys a fine sense of mock propriety without too much bluster or fury. In Semiramide, with its excess of haunting melodies, Giulini never overdoes the composer's sometimes bombastic inclinations. Still, this is the one overture where Giulini might have enlivened things a little more than he does. The concluding number is the really big one: Guillaume Tell. As Rossini developed as a composer, his overtures became more complex, often, as here, arranged as miniature tone poems in separate movements. Giulini offers it up on the most-momentous possible scale in his usual unhurried manner. The final galop is fully engaging, which means exhilarating, not exhausting.
EMI recorded these overtures between 1956 and 1964 in Kingsway Hall, London, releasing the current reissue in 2011. The sound tends to be a tad aggressive at several junctures, yet it is never bothersome. Most of the time, the sound is clear and open, with a wide dynamic range, a strong impact, and a wide stage presence. While the bass is somewhat light, the mellowness of the lower strings nicely balances against the more-forward highs, producing a pleasant result. There is also that modest-to-excellent stage depth I mentioned earlier and the merest hint of ambient hall bloom to ensure a lifelike sonic display. One notices a small degree of tape hiss in quieter sections of the music, but that doesn't present a problem, either, since it's so faint.
For big orchestral accounts of these Rossini overtures, one can hardly go wrong with Giulini and the Philharmonia, and the price is certainly right. However, for the listener who doesn't already have them, there are other fine full-orchestra alternatives to consider: Reiner and the Chicago Symphony (RCA), Gamba and the LSO (Decca or JVC), and Maag and the Paris Conservatory Orchestra (HDTT); or for a slightly smaller ensemble, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (DG) and Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields (Philips or PentaTone); or for a period-instruments group, Norrington and the London Classical Players (EMI), among many others.
William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer
Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.
The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.