The Hitmaster

Rossini Overtures: William Tell and the Famous Five

Herbert von Karajan / Philharmonia Orchestra

Columbia 33CX 1739


Give me a laundry list, and I will set it to music.

Gioacchino Rossini

An early Columbia mono recording, this sampling of Rossini’s overtures has all the hits, and some obscurer ones, you could ever want in one album. Rossini was the one-man hit factory of early19th century opera. Rousing trumpet fanfares? Yep. Dances you’ll be humming for days? Got em. Huge rampaging finales? For sure. Historically, the overture was used to fluff the audience for the meat of the opera to come, hinting at various themes and melodies that would soon be sung.

Rossini’s operas revitalizedĀ the operatic form itself. In his works, beautiful melodies just seem to spill out effortlessly, building to huge climaxes, for which his name has become practically synonymous. Probably his only equal in the realm of the comedic opera is Mozart, and Rossini’s style might be even more distinctive. Outside of William Tell and The Barber of Seville, The Thieving Magpie might be his most characteristic work. It’s like some Ur-overture combining the various devices that make his works so unflinchingly Rossini-esque, and unlike anyone else’s.

Taking the form of a semiseria 2-act opera, The Thieving Magpie is based on an 1817 comedy about a young girl who’s about to be hung for stealing some silver. The girl is saved at the last minute, when it’s discovered that the real thief is a magpie with an appetite for heists. (Coincidentally, magpies are some of the smartest non-mammals in the animal kingdom, with the ability to recognize themselves in mirrors, so maybe TTM isn’t as farfetched as we might believe.) The girl is saved and the trickster magpie takes her place.

Rossini finished the opera, so it’s said, a night before the premiere. He was locked in a room, and as he completed parts, he tossed sheet music out the window to a waiting copyist, who then transcribed the individual orchestral parts. The overture begins with a couple of drum-rolls before welling into a militaristic march that then changes pace, introducing a slew of enchanting melodies, including an incredibly popular tune in the woodwinds. That, of course, is followed by the obligatory crescendo announcing the start of the finale. Refrains from earlier are interspersed throughout the orchestra, until overture moves to its rousing climax, which could simply be called a “rossini” for its sheer propulsion.

Whipper-Snapper

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Shostakovich: Piano Concerto No. 2 / Ravel: Piano Concerto in G major

Leonard Bernstein, piano & conductor / New York Philharmonic / Columbia Symphony Orchestra

Columbia ML 5337

When a piano concerto starts off with the crack of a whip, you know it’s going to be very different from most music you’ve heard. Such is the intro of Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G (1929-31), and from there it’s like some experiment in jazzing up classical. In that regard, Bernstein is a fabulous interpreter, being a composer of jazzy works from West Side Story to his more serious 3 symphonies, not to mention his prolific conducting of pretty much everything in the symphonic and the concerto repertoire up to that time.

On this rare mono recording from Columbia, Bernstein conducts from the piano (there’s only a few such recordings of him at the ivories, with another notable one being Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 15), playing Ravel, along with Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 from 1957–two very different concertos.

The Shostakovich concerto was a birthday gift to his son. For a present, it doesn’t skimp on starkness or intensity, but it does have some uncharacteristically lyrical, almost sentimental themes in the slow middle movement. Something of a polar opposite of Shostakovian austerity, the Ravel is colorfully flamboyant. After the freewheeling opening movement, an Adagio assai presents a lengthy songlike melody that’s almost jarringly classical in comparison. The brief Presto begins harmonically before the tune is sabotaged by dissonances from the brass and wind sections, and after a kerfuffle between them, the same four chords that set the whole concerto in motion bring it to a conclusion.

It’s certainly a virtuoso work, calling on the performer to navigate a spate of moods, styles and rhythms, and Leonard Bernstein pulls it off admirably.

Francescatti’s Bruch

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Bruch: Concerto No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra

with Beethoven: Two Romances

Zino Francescatti, violin / Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York / Dimitri Mitropoulos / Columbia Symphony Orchestra / Jean Morel

Columbia 4575

In the populous domain of Romantic violin concertos, there’s a lot to pick from. You can choose between Beethoven’s op. 61, Mendelssohn’s op. 64 or the Brahms. Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto is one of the most played, possibly just ahead of Jean Sibelius’s, and that’s just counting the most well-known. Each has been recorded a plethora of times, with the best violinists. The sound of the violin–majestic, towering, melancholic–makes it more than just a virtuosic vehicle designed for hotshot doyens (although that’s never lacking in the above-mentioned works either).

Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 is like some archetype of the form. It was completed, with considerable hemming and hawing by the composer, in 1866, and was intended for the greatĀ  virtuoso Joseph Joachim. From the beginning it was a smash hit, though after a while Bruch couldn’t stand it and refused to listen to it anymore.

Despite his strong feelings, it’s become one of the performed works for violin. As part of the standards, it’s shot through with an empathic Romanticism. The violin soars above the orchestra like it’s rising out of the accompaniment in the Prelude and then softens to lullaby strains in the Adagio middle movement, with triplicated themes voiced equally between soloist and symphony. The energetic Finale is an extravaganza of virtuosity, with melodies strung from national airs and folks songs, and composed with unrelenting lyricism.

Zino Francescatti is the virtuoso in question on this Columbia mono LP, with Dimitri Mitropoulos and the P-SO of NY. The violinist was known for his championing of contemporary works, like those of Milhaud and Szymanowski. He’s most esteemed for his Mendelssohn recordings, however, along with this concerto.