Rossini: Overtures (CD review)

Carlo Maria Giulini, Philharmonia Orchestra. EMI Classics 50999 9 18734 2 2.

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.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa