William Tell, Silken Ladder, Il Signor Bruschino, and more. Christian Benda, Prague Sinfonia Orchestra. Naxos 8.570934.
These days most people know Italian composer Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868) best for his overtures, of which he wrote a slew. Here, we have the second of four discs from Christian Benda and his Prague Sinfonia Orchestra, a set that encompasses all the overtures the man wrote.
There are any number of good recordings of Rossini overtures, and Benda gives us yet another good choice. Still, as I’ve said before, one needs to consider the competition before making any hasty decisions, and we already have 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 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. Still, Benda’s performances stand up to the best, and the Naxos sound and price are right.
Anyway, it is Benda’s apparent decision to include a few of the most-popular Rossini overtures on each of his four discs, along with several lesser-known overtures. Accordingly, Benda begins the program on Volume 2 with the biggest gun in the Rossini arsenal, Guillaume Tell, the “William Tell” overture (you can here a snippet below). As you probably know, Rossini divided the overture into four separate sections or movements: the Prelude or Dawn; the Storm; the pastorale or “Call to the Cows”; and the famous closing galop or “March of the Swiss Soldiers.” In terms of Benda’s interpretation, I suppose you could say that three out of four ain’t bad. Dawn arrives dramatically, with appropriate atmosphere; the Storm erupts with much sound and fury; the pastorale is serenely blissful; but the galop lacks the thrills provided by any number of other conductors. The Prague Sinfonia play well enough, and there’s no denying the music has elegance. Just not quite all the excitement one may expect, closer to an analytical approach in the end. Benda’s reading appears aimed more toward the pure music lover than the Lone Ranger fan, which is not altogether a bad thing.
The other big guns on the program are the overtures to the comic operas La scala di seta (“The Silken Ladder”) and Il Signor Bruschino (“Signor Bruschino, or The Son by Chance”), which Maestro Benda handles with grace, wit, and refinement. La scala di seta displays a good deal of zip and pizzazz; it’s truly an exhilarating experience, with a light, easy step for so quick a tempo. In Signor Bruschino we find both elegance and charm, yet Benda’s performance is not without a properly playful stress on the tapping of the bows.
Then, there are the less well-known works: the overtures to Eduardo e Cristina (“Eduardo and Cristina”), L’inganno felice (“The Happy Deception”), Demetrio e Polibio (“Demetrius and Polybius”), and Sigismondo (“Sigismondo, King of Poland”), and the very early non-overture Sinfonia di Bologna, which Rossini wrote in his teens. These overtures are from largely serious, or at least semi-serious, operas, with an emphasis on typically Italian melodrama. Thus, you can expect Benda to be pretty earnest in all of it. Nevertheless, there is a goodly portion of lyrical delight throughout the pieces. This is especially true of Eduardo e Cristina, which demonstrates Benda’s ability to convey romance and adventure effectively.
One can perhaps see why not all of Rossini’s operas and overtures gained a full measure of popularity over the years. The fact is, not all of them contain the particularly inventive touches or memorable melodies. Even so, Maestro Benda makes a good case for all of them, infusing them with an élan that tends to carry the day.
If there is any one drawback I could name, though, it might be that there is less than an hour of material on the disc, including the non-overture. I can’t help thinking that Naxos could probably have included all of the overtures on three discs rather than four. Nevertheless, at so affordable a price, I shouldn’t complain.
Naxos recorded the music at Kulturni dum Barikadniku, Prague, Czech Republic, in 2011 and at Produkcni dum Vzlet, Prague, in 2012. The sound they obtained is quite good, well balanced, with no undue forwardness or dullness, a well-extended treble, fine low-end definition, solid midrange clarity and definition, reasonably sharp transient response, and overall taut impact. There is also a wide stereo spread and a modest amount of orchestral depth. A small degree of soft warmth tends to make the sound easier on the ear than it would otherwise. In all, this is one of Naxos’s better-sounding discs.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: