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Popular Operatic Overtures
Johann STRAUSS II (1825-1899)
Die Fledermaus (1874) [8:20]
Franz Von SUPPÉ (1819-1895)
Poet and Peasant (1846) [9:54]
Bedřich SMETANA (1824-1884)
The Bartered Bride (1866) [6:58]; Polka and Furiant from The Bartered Bride [7:12]
Carl Maria Von WEBER (1786-1826)
Der Freischütz (1821) [9:21]
Ferdinand HÉROLD (1791-1833)
Zampa (1831) [8:18]
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
La forza del destino (1862) [7:23]
Mikhail GLINKA (1804-1857)
Ruslan and Ludmilla (1846) [5:25]
Philharmonia Orchestra/William Boughton
rec. 11-12 April 1988, Royal Albert Hall, London.
NIMBUS NI7097 [62:51]

Records of overtures fall into two groups: single composer collections and anthologies. This disc is of the anthology kind, but the items have been cunningly chosen to be mostly the kind of works which would not suit a single composer overture collection. In some cases the composer did not write enough overtures or enough to warrant such a collection. That is not true of Weber or Suppé but explains the absence of Mendelssohn, Berlioz and Wagner.

The selection here comes from five countries and a period of fifty-three years. Admittedly what is now the Czech Republic was then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, but the ardently nationalist Smetana should be allowed his own country. In some cases the operas to which these are the overtures have remained in the general repertory. In some cases they have not but all the works here are self-sufficient and rewarding in themselves. You do not have to know the plots of the operas to which they belong.

Although all these overtures have been popular they do not nowadays often appear on concert programmes. You can tell that the Philharmonia enjoyed playing them. They launch into Die Fledermaus with great zip and retain their enthusiasm throughout. There is some fine playing: I particularly enjoyed the growl and rasp of the trombones in Der Freischütz as well as the stylish violin slide in the Polka and the crisp alternation of duple and triple rhythm in the Furiant from The Bartered Bride. The eloquent cello solo in the slow beginning of Suppé’s Poet and Peasant merits applause – the player should have been named. That said, the stars of the show are really the violins, who are required to skitter about at great speed in a number of these works. They do so with verve and aplomb.

William Boughton used to be a great presence in British musical life but, like Raymond Leppard, has rather faded from view in the UK since he went to live and work in the USA in 2007. He not only elicits fine playing from the Philharmonia but demonstrates careful preparation to grasp the idiom of each work. Perhaps the Viennese works are slightly stiff and don’t quite have the lilt that some conductors give them but that is being hypercritical.

I raised my eyebrows when I saw that this programme had been recorded in the Royal Albert Hall, not known for good acoustics. However, the engineers have clearly been clever with their microphone placement because it sounds quite decent here. Only perhaps the piccolo is rather shrill but then that is the nature of the instrument. You would not guess that these recordings date from nearly thirty years ago.

In short, this does what it says on the tin: a well-chosen, well prepared and enjoyable set of overtures.

Stephen Barber



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