The Overtures to Rossini’s operas are an uplifting musical tonic and have attracted such names as, say, Abbado, Colin Davis, Giulini, Karajan, Peter Maag, Neville Marriner (who recorded the lot, 3 CDs’ worth), George Szell and Fritz Reiner – and now Antonio Pappano joins this illustrious crew and in a wholly distinguished way.A sizzling beginning and some very expressive woodwind solos opens The Silken Ladder to arresting effect. From there the allegro is a delight, nimble and poised, fastidiously detailed, and played with joy: the result is foot-tapping and smile-inducing. Mr Bruschino, bows sounding on music-stands, is infectiously lively and elegantly turned, with a witty side-step or two. The Barber of Seville, although attracting rather more bass-drum strokes than normal (presumably due to Alberto Zedda’s critical edition, for I have heard Temirkanov conduct this Overture with similar additions), chugs along amiably. Cinderella is full of theatrical atmosphere at its opening and then laced with point (in every sense) in the faster music, given a light touch, and with trombones picked out for attention (maybe another consequence of Zedda’s editing).
The more-extended Overture to Semiramide mixes high seriousness and frivolity – Pappano has a handle on both qualities and also conjures a magical pianissimo ‘return’, from 8’20” that has the ears (already grateful for the use of antiphonal violins) really pricking up. If the Siege of Corinth is lesser-known, it deserves better, for this imaginative and dancing piece (with a hint of warfare) comes across as pretty remarkable here and with proto-Verdian drama. William Tell (and its Lone Ranger associations) needs no introduction. Presumably taken from Pappano’s complete recording of the epic opera (review-link below, along with some other Santa Cecilia releases), the conductor secures some beautifully elegant solo-cello playing at the outset, the ensuing storm is suitably whipped-up and the pastoral reverie that follows is as fresh as a mountain breeze. The famous final gallop is truly exciting.
Last but not least is the Theme and Variations, here a showcase for four of Orchestra di Santa Cecilia’s principal players, if without the supporting cast of their colleagues and conductor. If no more than charming (I would have preferred The Thieving Magpie, which has flown the nest), it is played with character, contour and dexterity. Not surprisingly, given the various recording dates, the sound is a little variable and at its full best in William Tell. Elsewhere, for all the admirable clarity and dynamism (the latter needed to accommodate Rossini’s crescendo nickname), there is a clinical feel to the reproduction, but it may be that Pappano has, in some cases, reduced the personnel of the strings. Overall, though, this is an excellent and enjoyable collection.