May 29, 2015

  • A Humourous Set of Beginnings


    Great Comedy Overtures
    Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Lance Friedel
    Naxos 8.573418
    Total Time:  79:44
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

    Lance Friedel is an American conductor who has gained some critical acclaim for his recordings of Nielsen and Foerster.  He must currently be in the midst of many guest conducting appearances as he awaits an appointment.  He has a fairly impressive list of conducting teachers among which is Georg Tintner—which may explain his acclaimed Brahms concert performances.  This Naxos disc must certainly have been a great deal of fun to put together as it contains some eleven overtures, many of which are considered standard concert fare.  However, what is equally great is that there are some wonderfully lesser-known works that make an appearance here as well.  By any stretch of the imagination half of this program would have been ample, but at nearly 80 minutes of music making this is just one piece of candy after another.  The recording appears to have been made over the course of three days back in January 2014.  That would suggest some fairly fast readthroughs and just enough time for some fine-tuning and tweaking.  Most of these pieces essentially play themselves and so the conductor’s role here is one of tempo and slight interpretive gestures.  Certainly a good many of these works were familiar to the RSNO.

    There are a couple of very familiar overtures in this bunch composed between 1792 and 1909.  The oldest of these is Cimarosa’s Il matrimonio segreto, one of the composer’s more popular works.  Wolf-Ferrari’s classically-inspired overture to Il segreto di Susanna  helps bring us into the 20th century a bit.  The album is moves freely back and forth across the 19th century without concern to chronology.  However, the connections between opera buffa, opera comique, Spieloper, and operetta are there to be made as the music travels back and forth across Europe.  Of all the familiar works on the program, the disc begins with perhaps the four most popular of them.

    Herold’s Zampa overture leads this opening pack that also includes Nicolai’s Merry Wives of Windsor and Thomas’ Mignon in addition to the Wolf-Ferrari work.  The Herold has some great solo displays in it and the energy is certainly there with the shifts in mood working fairly well.  In this overture, one can hear good attention to articulation as well as some nice interpretive touches, all of which point to why conductors tend to program this work.  The approach to each overtures melodic shape allows them each to be engaging in their own right.  The soaring lyrical theme from the Nicolai works very well and the ending is not too terribly rushed either and the minor section works quite well with excellent contrasts in dramatic tone.  The Wolf-Ferrari piece is simply delightful fun with great wind writing and nice classical touches throughout.  The Thomas features some nice melodic ideas that build a bit like  a Suppe overture, company it often is included with and then overshadowed by in the end.  The RSNO does a wonderful job here with great woodwind playing and excellent balance for the sweeping string melodies.

    We jump to the end of the century for Reznicek’s Donna Diana overture (1894) with its bubbly wind writing and gorgeous primary thematic idea.  Flotow’s Martha also has its fans and appears from time to time.  This is grander operatic writing that overviews key themes from the work.  The handling of the orchestra is equally fun to hear as the RSNO appear to enjoy playing through this work as well.  The music of Auber seems to come and go in popularity which is too bad because it is filled with great playful orchestral writing that includes wonderful tunefulness and a good measure of excitement.  His Fra Diavolo overture is most noted for its little march section.

    The final four overtures are overall less familiar works for even some die hard listeners though they do appear from time to time.  Lortzing is perhaps the least remembered of the composers represented here but his 1837 Zar und Zimmermann overture certainly demonstrates why it was such a popular work in its day with a number of charming orchestral ideas.  The Cimarosa gives us a bit of Mozartean charm (having been written a mere 2 months after the death of Mozart).  While Adolphe Adam is better known for his ballet Giselle and a Christmas carol, his melodic writing was quite at home in opera as well and the oriental touches of Si j’etais roi (1852) exhibit this quite well with the shift now to a much larger orchestra and not yet “tainted” by Wagnerian excess.  Peter Cornelius’s overture to Der Barbier von Bagdad is another of those mid-century flirtations with Arabic influence and bears the distinction of having been premiered under the direction of Liszt.  This too is filled with themes from the opera and is an arrangement by Felix Mottl that exists as the composer himself never got around to expanding the original prelude to the opera.

    If someone were to want a bunch of great overtures in one place, this would be a hands-down recommendation.  The album will certainly be perfect for FM Classical stations as these are all pretty much crowd pleasers in good performances all around.  There are simply tons of great melodic ideas throughout and that we can get an overview like this minus Rossini or Supper, or even Johann Strauss, Jr. for that matter, makes room for some of the rarer touches that lift this disc up to a more worthy glance!  The accompanying notes do not overwhelm but are simple and to the point to allow just enough information to further appreciate the music.  Of course, the success of this venture could very well lead to a volume 2 quite easily as Naxos shores up its works catalogue.  There is certainly enough variety for fans of 19th-Century music to savor throughout the collection.