Rossini: Complete Overtures, Volume 4 (CD review)
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:
Meet the Staff
William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer
Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.
The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.