Rossini Overtures Reiner RCA GD60837

Déjà Review: this review was first published in June 2005 and the recording is still available.

Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868)
Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville, 1813) [7:04]
La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie) (1817) [9:16]
La Cenerentola (Cinderella, 1817) [7:23]
Il Signor Bruschino (1813) [4:34]
La scala di seta (The Silken Ladder, 1812) [6:27]
Guglielmo Tell (William Tell, 1829) [11:58]
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Fritz Reiner
rec. 22 November 1958, Orchestra Hall, Chicago
Reviewed as RCA 82876 65844 2
RCA GD60837 [47]

If you want a disc to make you smile, to lift your spirits, this is it. Rossini’s effervescent music and the unmatched panache of Reiner’s conducting are a winning formula!

My opening remarks notwithstanding, I suggest too few serious music-lovers take Rossini seriously enough: an ignorant response to a composer of tremendous range, with as instinctive a theatrical mind as Mozart’s or Verdi’s. That’s because, whereas everyone knows his overtures, hardly anyone knows his operas. And the overtures – music to sit down to, to get comfortable with – seldom represent or typify the operas they precede. In fact, they’re normally lightweight, easy-on-the-ear pieces, comprising a string of tunes and (for want of a better word) gimmicks – brilliant orchestral effects, including that distinctive Rossini trademark, the interminable crescendo!

In terms of orchestration, much of this music was state-of-the-art in the 1820s. The five solo cellos, the dramatic storm music, and the cor anglais and flute duet in Guglielmo Tell are as novel as anything in Berlioz. And the col legno effects in Il Signor Bruschino, or the stereophonic ‘answering drums’ in La gazza ladra, are positively avant-garde! We mustn’t underestimate this music.

I think we should be careful not to over-estimate these performances, however. I hope saying this doesn’t shock too many of you: this is, after all, a historic recording, and the yardstick against which all Rossini overture discs have long since been judged! True, they’re exciting, they’re dynamic, and they’re spectacularly well played. But they’re just a bit rough at the edges, and rather explosive – sheer enthusiasm’s to blame, I suggest, that’s all! The wide-ranging (bright and bottom heavy) recording contributes to the effect. But make no mistake: it’s all tremendous fun!

47 minutes was a well-filled LP in 1959. But for a CD in 2005, it’s short measure. Good job this isn’t going to cost you an arm and a leg.

A semi-relevant postscript: as a musician, I get terribly irritated hearing the word crescendo used to mean ‘noise’ or ‘confusion’ – even the BBC do it, for heaven’s sake! (As in “she got herself worked up to a crescendo!”) English, we’re told, is in a state of flux: continuous transition and development. But crescendo, I insist, means ‘getting gradually louder’. This disc provides you with 17 examples (I’ve counted them, okay?) and lasting proof that Rossini’s right and the rest of the world is wrong!

Peter J Lawson

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