NO ONE would suggest that Offenbach overtures are to be considered on the same level as the expansive and complex symphonies of Bruckner, but they do have certain "textual problems" in common. The right solution for Bruckner -- "original version" -- however, is not necessarily the right one for Offenbach; a misguided gesture toward "authenticity," in fact, keeps Neville Marriner's new digitally recorded Philips collection of Offenbach overtures (6514.098; cassette 7337.098) from fulfilling the expectations raised by his recent package of Suppe' overtures on the same label.
It is well known that Offenbach himself did not write the overtures to his operettes, which have become orchestral repertory pieces. For the most part, the overtures are the work of highly skilled but totally forgotten German and Viennese musicians whose names rarely appear on concert programs or record labels. The most famous of the overtures, the one to "Orpheus in the Underworld," was put together by Carl Binder for the Viennese premiere of "Orpheus"; the still more attractive one to "La Belle He'le ne" was created by someone named Haensch. And so on.
In addition to those two overtures, Marriner's collection includes the overtures to "La Grande-Duchesse de Gerolstein," "La Fille du tambour-major," "La Pe'richole," "Les Deux Aveugles," "Barbe-bleue" and "La Vie parisienne." While the Philips people wouldn't be foolish enough to offer the puny little prelude Offenbach himself wrote for "Orpheus" (you can hear it on the Angel recording of the complete operetta), the liner note advises that the Overture "to 'La Belle He'le ne' as recorded here is Offenbach's original 66-bar prelude concluded with music from the finale of Act II, in the original orchestration," and that from the remaining six pieces "all traces of the work of other arrangers have been removed and the overtures are presented in the original form and orchestrations, some for the first time."
Looks good, in this age of authenticity, but it doesn't hold up well in the actual listening. This version of "La Belle He'le ne," which isn't even Offenbach's original overture, but a new concoction described in the material just quoted, lacks form, flavor and any hint of substance in its seven-minute course, while the Haensch version (the standard one recorded in the past by Klemperer, Scherchen and Martinon as well as Ansermet, Karajan and Fiedler) sensibly makes the most of that seductive waltz tune (brought in too little and too late on Philips), and molds the strongest materials into a cogent 10-minute whole.
Similarly, the little "Grande-Duchesse" Overture on the new disc is a poor substitute for the more elaborate version prepared by Fritz Hoffmann and recorded by Arthur Fiedler and Erich Kunzel.
Of the several collections, Kunzel's, with the Cincinnati Pops (Turnabout TV 34744), seems to me the strongest in terms of program, performance and price. In addition to the "Orpheus" and "He'le ne" overtures, Kunzel offers the lesser-known overtures to "Kakadu" (or "Vert-Vert") and "Lille de Tulipatan" (another Hoffmann arrangement) with "Barbe-bleue," "La Grande-Duchesse de Gerolstein" and "La Vie parisienne" -- the last in the form of a brilliant concert piece by Antal Dorati, who also composed two ballet scores using Offenbach themes ("Bluebeard" and "Helen of Troy").
After the Kunzel disc, I would consider another economical Offenbach package, the re-reissued Fiedler collection (RCA AGL1-1963; cassette ALK1-4457), which includes only three overtures -- "Orpheus," "He'le ne" and "Grande-Duchesse" -- but offers with them an extended potpourri from "La Pe'richole," the galop from "Genevie ve de Brabant," some excerpts from "Tales of Hoffmann," a musette for cello and orchestra, and the waltz, "Les Belles ame'ricaines."
To be sure, it was the genius of Offenbach that created the tunes and the unique flavors, but in the case of the overtures it was Binder, Haensch, Hoffmann and Dorati who created the durable -- and eminently lovable -- concert pieces. If you have to have a digital collection, Karajan (DG 2532.006) is a much better bet than Marriner, but his disc costs more than Fiedler's and Kunzel's together, and gives less pleasure than either.