Overtures, Preludes & Intermezzi
Filarmonica della Scala
The album Overtures, Preludes & Intermezzi can be rightly considered one of the most La Scala recordings ever released because the image of the illustrious Milanese theatre is omnipresent in it: the orchestra Filarmonica della Scala is conducted by Riccardo Chailly, appointed musical director of the theatre in 2015, and the music is taken from operas that were performed for the first time at La Scala, with the only exception of Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci and I Medici, which premiered in another Milanese theatre, the Teatro Dal Verme.
The purpose of Overtures, Preludes & Intermezzi is definitely more complex that to show off the orchestra of Teatro la Scala as it wants to discredit the legend that «harmony and orchestral music were the exclusive domain of the Austro-German tradition, while melody and opera were confined to Italy. The flaws in this argument become obvious as soon as we consider the vocal gems penned by Schubert, Schumann, Wagner and Brahms and the central role given to the orchestra in the stage works created by the Italian composers featured here. As well as using it to support, reinforce or counter the vocal line, they also wrote purely instrumental numbers which play a key part in the opera as a whole» (from the note written by Fabrizio Della Seta). Therefore, the choice of Chailly, who is active both in the Italian and in the German repertoire, is absolutely logical.
As the title suggests, this recording includes every kind of instrumental composition associated for an opera with excerpts from works written from early XIX to XX century (from belcanto to the “giovane scuola”), featuring little known compositions as well as some renowned masterpieces. Sometimes, the selection is surprising because, if Bellini is present with the famous Overture from Norma, two Overtures from La pietra del paragone (later re-used in Tancredi) and from Ugo, Conte di Parigi have been chose for Rossini and Donizetti instead of the more familiar tunes of Il turco in Italia and Anna Bolena, that premiered at La Scala as well. Verdi too is represented by his unlucky early opera Il finto Stanislao and by I Lombardi alla prima crociata and not by his successes and, when you take into consideration the Verismo operas (using “Verismo” in the widest meaning of the term), you will realize that famous pieces as the Intermezzo from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, and the Dance of the Hours from Ponchielli’s Gioconda are mixed with rarities as the Prelude from Giordano’s Siberia and Leoncavallo’s I Medici.
These works and several others (La Wally, Mefistofele, Edgar, I pagliacci) are directed to stress the strong influence exerted by foreign traditions upon Italian music and to clarify its evolution in the course of the century but, in my opinion, this is far more effective for the first aim than the second. The problem is that the operas are not presented in chronological order and it is rather difficult to follow an evolution of any kind when the album opens with Verdi, moves to Catalani and then goes back to the three belcanto composers (as it happens in the first six tracks). The same confusion reigns in the section devoted to the last decades of the XIX century and the beginning of the XX, where Siberia (composed in 1903 and revised in 1927) is placed before every other piece, while Mefistofele (1876) coincides with the last track. Fortunately, the disposition allows to create some nice contrasts between joy and melancholy and it compensates a little for the untidiness. Moreover, if the overall picture is not clear, it is still possible to distinguish the external influences that characterize a single piece and to guess French or German connections.
Apart from the strange order of the tracklist, Overtures, Preludes & Intermezzi is extremely valuable from the music point of view. The long familiarity of Chailly with Italian music creates an album which is characterized by liveliness and vivacity, qualities that highlight the typical brilliance and lightness of Italian music. As may happen with long-forgotten pieces, not all of them can be considered masterpieces, but it is to be said that there is not a moment of boredom thanks to Chailly’s approach. His conduction is smooth and not at all nervous and for this reason compositions as Bellini’s Overture from Norma lack a certain tension that would not have been inappropriate, but this is not really a deficiency because there is plenty of other beautiful features to replace it: the Overture from Il finto Stanislao makes a fine showing of mock-heroic pomposity, the Prelude from La Wally is characterized by boundless melancholy, something that it is similar to the feeling expressed in the Intermezzo from Madama Butterfly, the famous Dance of the Hours is a witty and brilliant piece that offers many moments of amusement, while Leoncavallo’s two Preludes from I Medici (Act I and Act III) are conducted with firmness and energy and easily remind of Wagner and of German music.
It is then for music itself that Overtures, Preludes & Intermezzi is an excellent album, because its “programmatic” aim is not clearly developed, not even if we consider that order is not exactly an Italian virtue and that this confusion may corroborate the Italian style of the recording. Joking aside, this is the only main flaw for which I complain and this does not absolutely affect Chailly’s execution.