October 15, 2009


Florian Leopold Gassmann: Opera Overtures—La notte critica; Gli uccellatori; Filosofia ed amore; La casa di campagna; La contessina; Il viaggiatore ridiculo; Il filosofo innamorato; L’amore artigiano; Un pazzo ne fa cento; Le pescatrici. Eclipse Chamber Orchestra conducted by Sylvia Alimena. Naxos. $8.99.

Richard Strauss: Suite from “Der Rosenkavalier”; Symphonic Fantasy on “Die Frau ohne Schatten”; Symphonic Fragment from “Josephs-Legende.” Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $8.99.

     Sometimes the sheer joy of superb playing is almost enough to make a CD an unqualified success. Almost. That is the case with the new Naxos disc of 10 overtures by Florian Leopold Gassmann (1729-1774), played with tremendous style and élan by the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra under Sylvia Alimena. This is a small orchestra whose members are drawn from the National Symphony Orchestra (Washington, D.C.), and the group plays as if everyone is a virtuoso and everyone is having tremendous fun. The ensemble work is so good that the works here have the give-and-take of fine chamber music, as if a quartet has outgrown the confines of its size and emerged larger but equally well integrated. Unfortunately, all this wonderful playing is at the service of some rather pedestrian music. There is nothing wrong with Gassmann’s opera overtures, but a full CD of them is a bit much to take – even a CD that is not especially lengthy (64 minutes). Each of these 10 overtures is in the same old-fashioned fast-slow-fast form. All feature bright and lively outer sections sandwiching some lovely lyricism in the middle. Three of the overtures are to operas that were quite popular in their day: Il viaggiatore ridiculo (“The Ridiculous Traveler”), L’amore artigiano (“Love in the Workplace”) and La contessina (“The Young Countess”). But there is nothing in the overtures themselves to distinguish these works from other pleasantly titled ones such as Gli uccellatori (“The Birdcatchers”), Il filosofo innamorato (“The Philosopher in Love”) and Un pazzo ne fa cento (“One Madman Makes Many”). Alimena and the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra are to be commended for going beyond the standard 18th-century repertoire to dig up some worthy music by a composer who is now little known. But “worthy” does not mean the same thing as “distinctive.” Gassmann’s overtures are well-wrought and pleasant, but a relatively small amount of this music goes a long way.

     Unlike Gassmann, Richard Strauss is a very well-known and popular opera composer: Elektra, Salome, and of course Der Rosenkavalier are staples of the repertoire, and Ariadne auf Naxos and Capriccio are heard from time to time. But other works by Strauss have largely fallen by the wayside – and this was true even during his own lifetime. Therefore, to draw attention to some of his less-often-performed works, Strauss decided near the end of his life to create what are in effect symphonic poems based on them. Hence we have Symphonic Fantasy on “Die Frau ohne Schatten” and Symphonic Fragment from “Josephs-Legende,” the latter based not on an opera but on one of the composer’s two ballets. JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic play these suites – as well as the familiar one from Der Rosenkavalier – with spirit and enthusiasm. The music is clearly Straussian, filled with sweep and power and very lush orchestration, always a Strauss hallmark. The music from Die Frau ohne Schatten is somewhat less effective in this form than the opulent score taken from Josephs-Legende, which is based on the Biblical story of Joseph’s attempted seduction by Potiphar’s wife. The ballet music simply flows more naturally on its own. But all this music is interesting and worth hearing – although it could use somewhat warmer brass than the Buffalo Philharmonic displays here. Falletta’s conducting is propulsive but perhaps more straightforward than insightful: she keeps everything together well but does not really pull listeners into the music. Die Frau ohne Schatten, in particular, seems a trifle cool and distant. This is nevertheless a very interesting mixture of some familiar Strauss music with some that most listeners will not have heard before.

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