Rossini: Complete Overtures, Volume 1 (CD review)

Christian Benda, Prague Philharmonic Choir and Prague Sinfonia Orchestra. Naxos 8.570933.

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.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

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