Sunday, October 14, 2012

Anatomy of an overture -- Rossini's "L'Italiana in Algeri"

Sir Neville Marriner conducts the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields in a 2006 Rheingau Music Festival performance of Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeri Overture that's even a bit broader than the wonderful 1974 recording we're going to hear.

by Ken

In the concert hall there aren't many more atmospheric musical openings than that of the Overture to Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeri (The Italian Woman in Algiers), an it makes for an opening that's if anything more atmospheric in the opera house.

As I mentioned in Friday night's preview, we're at the opposite end of Rossini's career from what I called the "post-theatrical" one, which followed the 1829 premiere of William Tell in Paris, where the composer had relocated in 1824. The reason I wanted to present something from that long period (remembering that he lived on till 1868), in this case the tenor's "Cujus animam" from the Stabat Mater (1831-41), was to show that Rossini (a) didn't stop composing and (b) hadn't suddenly lost his skills or inspiration.

In fact, the very busy decade of opera composing that preceded Rossini's sudden withdrawal from the stage raises a lot of questions of its own. There's a lot of fine music there, and a number of operas that can speak to audiences given adeqaute consideration, understanding, and in many cases casting -- conditions that pretty much never apply. A lot of William Tell itself rises to powerful heights, as we've discussed and heard a bit, but I think it would be incredibly difficult to make this real for audiences and also deal with the portions of it that don't seem to work so well.

In fact, for all the explorations and exhumations of Rossini's vast output, his position in the repertory still rests on the three comic masterpieces he wrote between 1813 and 1817. This may be a good time to listen again to the very opening of the Overture to L'Italiana in Algeri, eight bars scored just for softly plucked strings until that thundering from the full orchestra on the downbeat of bar 8.

ROSSINI: L'Italiana in Algeri: Overture -- Andante, part 1

(1) Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, Giuseppe Patané, cond.
(2) Philharmonia Orchestra, Erich Leinsdorf, cond.
(3) National Symphony Orchestra, Riccardo Chailly, cond.
(4) Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Neville Marriner, cond.

Note that in just these eight bars we can hear that we have four very different performances, starting with the quickest, Giuseppe Patané's (using tempos very similar to those of Arturo Toscanini) and proceeding to almost equally broad ones from Riccardo Chailly and Nville Marriner. The Marriner performance is set apart by a distinctive, much more firmly plucked pizzicato from his strings.


. . . in Venice in May 1813, the 21-year-old Rossini had already written 10 operas, and they're certainly not devoid of interest. But in L'Italiana he seems to me to have discovered how to create music that takes us into the souls of even these very comic characters. is something else again. One of them, the one-act Il Signor Bruschino, contains one of his most loved overtures, while another, La Scala di seta (The Silk Ladder), has an overture that remains popular. But L'Italiana was something else again. And he would do it again in The Barber of Seville, premiered in Rome in February 1816, and La Cenerentola (Cinderella), premiered in Rome in January 1817.

We're not going to go into any of these masterpieces any farther today than their glorious overtures. We're going to hear all three, but I want to take a little time to break down L'Italiana Overture.
In a booklet note for Philips' valuable set of the complete Rossini overtures performed by Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, the noted Rossini scholar Philip Gossett writes:

There dies exist an 'archetypical' design for the Rossini overture, a theoretical construct of which no individual work necessarily fulfills all parts. It opens with a slow introduction, whose stately beginning yields to an elegiac melody assigned to a wind instrument, oboe, clarinet, or horn. As the tune concludes, the music settles on the dominant harmony, which is resolved when the quick main section begins. The latter follows the sonata principle of an exposition with contrasting themes in different keys. A simple transition from the exposition to the recapitulation replaces the development section, traditional in sonata movements but generally absent in overtures. . . .
L'Italiana in Algeri: Overture -- Andante, part 2

That crash we heard at the end of the opening phrase conceals a bit of sleight of hand on Rossini's part. It turns out to hide the start of a repeat of the opening phrase (in effect bar 8 of the first phrase is also bar 1 of the second), and then, while the strings actually do continue a repetition of the previous phrase, in the second bar, the first oboe suddenly enters with a key solo:
Part 2

ROSSINI: L'Italiana in Algeri: Overture -- Andante, part 3

Rossini performs a similar trick to the one that launched the previous phrase, overlapping the last and first bars. In the new phrase the string players have picked up their bows for a brief transitional phrase, still punctuated on unexpected upbeats by the full complement of orchestral winds:
Part 3

ROSSINI: L'Italiana in Algeri: Overture -- Andante, part 4

Now winds and strings collaborate on a more elaborate transition, which takes the form of one of those crescendos Rossini is so famous for, which builds powerfully to a point at which clearly something big is about to happen:
Part 4

Indeed, something big is about to happen: the outburst of the overture's main Allegro section.


Since we're going to hear the Leinsdorf and Marriner performances complete, I thought we'd listen to just Patané and Chailly.

ROSSINI: L'Italiana in Algeri: Overture -- Andante

Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, Giuseppe Patané, cond. BMG, recorded Nov. 23-26, 1987

National Philarmonic Orchestra, Riccardo Chailly, cond. Decca, recorded January 1981


This is Rossini in full scamper, working out his materials with ingenuity and ebullience. For what I think of as the "first theme group," I couldn't find a logical stopping point until we run up against -- and even overlap -- the principal contrasting theme. (We're sticking with the Chailly performance.)

L'Italiana in Algeri: Overture -- Allegro, part 1:

Now, backing up just a bit, we hear that contrasting theme, once again given to the oboe, with an answer from the flute.

L'Italiana in Algeri: Overture -- Allegro, part 2:

Now here's the complete Allegro:

National Philarmonic Orchestra, Riccardo Chailly, cond. Decca, recorded January 1981


We're going to start with two performance that have been special to me for a long time: the Leinsdorf, originally from an old Capitol LP of great overtures which, as I explained when we first heard it, I used to listen to a lot; and the Marriner, from an unexpectedly wonderful LP of Rossini overtures that appeared in 1975 (you always expect a high level of performance from Marriner, but every now and then -- often in fairly unexpected repertory -- he lifts his game into something extraordinary). To them I've appended this fine performance by Gustav Kuhn.

Philharmonia Orchestra, Erich Leinsdorf, cond. EMI, recorded c1958

Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Neville Marriner, cond. Philips, recorded May 1974

Orchestra Filarmonica Marchigiana, Gustav Kuhn, cond. Arte Nova, recorded Jan. 17-20, 2000

Now we have two "specialty" performances: the one by the conductorless Orepheus Chamber Orchestra, and the supposedly "authentic" period-instrument one by Roger Norrington (it doesn't do much for me, but it may for you).

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. DG, recorded c1984

London Classical Players, Roger Norrington, cond. EMI, recorded January 1990


We've actually heard both pieces before, and in these very performances. I thought we would just hear them again. The performances are both notable for their unforced lyric grace and temperamental openness. (For guidance on the overtures' overall plans, check back to Philip Gossett's note above.)

ROSSINI: The Barber of Seville: Overture

Rossini Orchestra of Naples, Silvio Varviso, cond. Decca, recorded July-August 1964

ROSSINI: La Cenerentola: Overture

Philharmonia Orchestra, Carlo Maria Giulini, cond. EMI, recorded 1964

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