Rossini: Complete Overtures, Volume 4 (CD review)

Il barbiere di Siviglia, Il Turco in Italia, et al. Christian Benda, Prague Sinfonia Orchestra. Naxos 8.572735.

Maestro Christian Benda and the Prague Sinfonia Orchestra continue their march through the complete overtures of Italian composer Gioacchino Antonio Rossini (1792–1868) with this fourth and final installment of selections. As before, Benda gives us a couple of well-known pieces and fills out the rest of the program with lesser-known items. And, as always, he does them up splendidly.

Here's the thing, though: There is still Sir Neville Marriner's complete, three-disc set to consider on Philips; yes, 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 one is interested in, there are 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. Nevertheless, Benda's performances stand up to the best, and the Naxos sound and price are right.

In The Barber of Seville we get a typically robust, responsive reading from Maestro Benda. As it is a lively comic opera, the overture follows suit, with Benda providing a good dose of smart theatrics, yet without in any way exaggerating the music. While I still wouldn't say I liked his interpretation any better than those I mentioned above, when you consider that it comes with a full complement of more-obscure overtures, it might find a home with dedicated Rossini fans.

Likewise, The Turk in Italy is a comic affair, and Benda treats it so. If anything, he plays up the contrasts even more in this one than he did in The Barber, making it another delight, frolicsome and energetic.

And so it goes: eight selections, two of them familiar and six of them less so. For example, the Sinfonia in E flat Major dates from Rossini's student days, but he reused it several times over in other overtures. It's actually quite charming in its original version, and Benda appears to make the most of it.

The other items include Riccardo e Zoraide, Torvaldo e Dorliska, Armida, Le Comte Ory, and Bianca e Falliero. Of them, Armida pleased me the most with its steady march rhythms, which Benda emphasizes slowly and dramatically before the action starts later in the piece.

The Prague Sinfonia Orchestra, a smallish group in their performances here, judging by the booklet picture of them, sound both rich and crisp in their presentation. They seem an ideal ensemble for the likes of Rossini and his music.

Producer Katerina Chobotava and engineer Michael Rast recorded the music at Produckeni dum Vzlet and Kulturni Dum Barikadniku, Prague in 2011 and 2012. The sound is very clean, with little overhang or veiling, yet there is a small degree of hall resonance, too. The miking is fairly close, revealing a modest degree of inner detail and reproducing a healthy dynamic range and impact. Bass and treble extension are pretty good as well, making this another deserving sonic entry in Benda's Rossini series.

So, is Benda's Rossini complete set worth the price of four discs? I'd say yes, at least for the listener wanting more than the standard fare. Marriner's set fits on three discs but isn't quite as thorough as Benda's, which includes darn near every overture and introduction Rossini wrote. What's more, even though some other conductors may be more colorful, more dynamic, or more refined in the material, Benda provides thoughtful, unobjectionable performances. Then add in the sturdy, modern sound, and, yeah, I'd say it's a worthy set.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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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.

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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.

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