Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868) wrote a slew of popular operas, but today most people probably know him best for his overtures. The present disc from Christian Benda and the Prague Sinfonia Orchestra (of which Benda is the Chief Conductor) and the Prague Philharmonic Choir is the first of four volumes of the composer’s overtures from Maestro Benda.
Choice is good, and Benda gives us yet another good choice. Yet before considering any new Rossini release, you should remember that there are already quite a few excellent discs out there, not the least of which is Neville Marriner’s complete, three-disc set from Philips, a long-gone label but one still available new and used for a reasonable (sometimes absurdly low) price. And if it’s only a single disc of the most-popular overtures you’re interested in, you can find excellent bargains on-line from the likes of, again, Marriner (Philips, PentaTone, or EMI), the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (DG), Fritz Reiner (RCA), Piero Gamba (Decca or JVC), Peter Maag (HDTT), Riccardo Muti (EMI), Claudio Abbado (DG), Riccardo Chailly (Decca), Carlo Maria Giulini (EMI), Sir Roger Norrington (EMI), and others.
Yes, there is a lot of Rossini out there. Nevertheless, if you’ve sampled all of the above or simply want to hear everything that’s available, certainly you’ll want to check out this first volume of overtures from Benda because they’re really quite good.
The program begins with three of Rossini’s most well-known overtures. The first is La gazza ladra (“The Thieving Magpie”), which Benda infuses with a stately elegance, going on to develop a reasonable amount of tension and excitement. What’s more, Benda handles the more lyrical interludes with a quick-paced grace.
Next, we find Semiramide, in which Benda exploits both the urgency and the serenity nicely. Then, we get Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra (“Elizabeth, Queen of England”), about which you are probably saying, “Huh? I’ve never heard of that.” No, but Rossini reused the same overture later for the far more-famous opera Il barbierre de Siviglia (“The Barber of Seville”). Anyway, Benda’s fleet-footed performance serves it well.
After those items, Benda serves up four more overtures that are only slightly less popular. Here, we find Otello, Rossini’s recounting of Shakespeare’s play, the music typical of the composer’s work. Benda gives it a lively, dramatic reading. Following that is Le Siege de Cornithe (“The Siege of Corinth”), a story “of love and duty.” Benda and his players treat it with appropriate attention to the duty part perhaps more than to the love element. Regardless, it moves along at a healthy clip. Moving on, there’s the odd little Sinfonia in D “al Conventello” Overture, in which you’ll recognize the first theme from Signor Bushino. Rossini was not above borrowing from himself. Again, Benda puts all his energy into it.
The album closes with Ermione (“Hermione”), from one of Rossini’s less-successful operas. The overture is of little consequence except for a few sections taken by a chorus. I had only heard it once before and have to admit that Benda’s rendition impressed me more than before.
Naxos recorded the music at the Kulturni Dum Barikadniku, Prague, Czech Republic, in 2011, and it’s one of the label’s best efforts of late. It displays a commendable dynamic range and impact, with a fairly clean, clear midrange and more-than-adequate bass and treble extension. The sound is not quite in the Orpheus (DG) or Maag (HDTT) league, but it’s good and on a par with most of the best. The smaller forces of the Prague Sinfonia help to produce more lucid sonics than we might get from an ensemble twice its size, and the Naxos engineers do their part to ensure a wide stereo spread and a decent sense of depth and air.