Academy of St Martin in the Fields
Sir Neville Marriner
Review by Karl Lozier
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SACD Number: PentaTone Classic 5186 106
Gioacchino Rossini was an extremely prolific composer of operas. By the time he was twenty-one years old he had written nine of them; admittedly some of them were very forgettable. His total output must have been approximately two dozen and there are reasons why I am not trying to give an exact number. All of us have heard the term "Grand Opera" or the phrase, great opera composers. I am under the belief that Rossini just missed on getting on either of those lists. He was a very popular composer and in Italy and England his operas were extremely popular. His German equivalent was Meyerbeer, but it was Rossini who filled in the niche as the most important operatic composer in the time period between the two greats, Mozart and Verdi. Unlike with most composers, the music, themes or melodies in his overtures quite often bore little resemblance to what is in the opera! To top it all off, when first performed some of his operas did not have an overture - the opera just simply started!
Included here are two rare operas from the pen of Rossini, Il Turco in Italia and
L'inganno felice. Unfortunately missing is the extremely popular (in the U.S.A.) "Lone Ranger" overture. Time restrictions due to the recording being done during the LP recording era probably knocked that out. If not, Marriner's use of original scoring for all the overtures (no heavy brass or bass drum) would have emasculated the famous
William Tell overture.
The first selection on this fine hybrid SACD/CD disc is "Il Barbiere di Siviglia" (the well-known Barber of Seville). Here and elsewhere I am using the original Italian names for these opera overtures as the lesser known ones do not have a commonly known English or American name. As is typical for these recordings, the conducting is very fine with a generally light and sprightly touch or feeling, nothing ponderous here. The orchestra responds in kind as does the excellent recording though it seems here to be a touch on the light and bright side of neutral, which may be a characteristic of the recording site of Brent Town Hall in London's Wembley area. The string sections are beautifully responsive and have the requisite resinous sheen. The winds complement the strings almost perfectly and once in awhile a beautiful response from a solo horn is distinctly heard deep back in the soundscape - yes, even in the two channel stereo layer of this hybrid disc.
"L'Ilatiana in Algeri" continues with the above comments except the first couple of minutes, plus some other passages, seem to be richer and fuller (scoring?). Again the winds are beautifully complementing the strings and very ably assisted by the lighter brass section.
"La camfialo di matrimonio" and "La Scale di seta" continue the previous conducting and playing comments without perceptible change. Any change in character or quality was beyond my notice - continuing excellence.
All is on cruise control through "Tancredi" and "Il Signor Bruschino" as might be expected with the long time relationship between Sir Neville Marriner (the most recorded conductor ever?) and the orchestra of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. For audiophiles and music lovers with a reasonably good sound system, listen extremely closely to
"Il Signor Bruschino". Do you hear that tapping noise? If so, exactly what do you think is causing it? The last set of taps sound just a bit different, why? All the while the winds are again shining through and the basses and cellos collaborate richly on a few passages. My answer to the above questions will be found in this month's Karl's Korner column in the Viewpoint Section or at the end of this review.
In "Il Turco in Italia" we are treated to some beautifully recorded passages (all too briefly) for brass and some specifically for the trumpet. The other rare opera's overture ending this fine disc is
"L'inganno felice". Same comments apply to it. If you know a real opera buff, ask the question, what famous diva brought a moment of fame to Rossini's
"Il Turco in Italia" with her recording of it almost a half century ago? The answer is Maria Callas.
Summary of all this is, as you have probably guessed, simple and straightforward. The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields with conductor Sir Neville Marriner have probably made more recordings together than any other pairing ever. The Academy carries the name of the like-named church. Last time I was in London they were still having musical performances during the week there in the London area. A little point of interest, the actual City of London is a rather small area and contains only one hotel! Years ago one of my patients informed me of this fact and had the Great Eastern Hotel send a brochure stating that fact to me. He claimed to have made a fair amount of money here betting that one of our local towns had more hotels than the City of London! Anyway, the music making is simply excellent. The recording quality is also excellent; I mean there are no obvious faults. You need to know that many years ago Marriner had obtained original manuscripts and they were scored with no bass drum (tympani okay) and no heavy brass instruments (that certainly eliminates tubas). Combined with his conducting style/interpretation the result is a bit different. Call it lightweight or light and sprightly musical. I remember it being almost thirty years ago that Marriner and The Academy came out with a four LP anthology of every (or almost every) operatic overture by Rossini. Reviews worldwide were generally positive but some controversy arose because they were done differently than usual. It had been very common to treat a Rossini overture as if it were an encore selection or showpiece. Marriner emphasizes the inherent musical beauty and
ease of listening. Highly recommended to all classical lovers in that context.
I put on an old and unusual stereo LP recording featuring Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. If memory serves me correctly, I got it from England though it is a RCA Japanese Gold Label,
which I had never seen from Japan, though in the U.S. they are usually inferior
pressings. Specifically, RCL 1028 [VICS 1079] never released in U.S. This rather rare recording held up very nicely and the actual gut feeling of the power of the Chicago Orchestra (at least double the Academy's size) plus bass drum and the "heavy brass" really hit home with me as the Lone Ranger and Tonto galloped into the soundstage. It was very different, heavier and more teutonic and more like what I grew up hearing and Chicago's legendary trumpeter, Adolph Herseth was stunningly recorded. I had forgotten what a showpiece
"La Gazza Ladro" was and so on with fond memories. This PentaTone recording is just as satisfying and with its fine recorded quality could be anyone's first choice. Listen and enjoy.
P.S. to PentaTone: If you ever do anything else with this fine disc, record one more selection (guess which one) with bass drum and all, then add it to these eight overtures.