PACCINI DID not provide overtures for his well-loved operas, nor did he write dances or marches for them, which might have provided material for orchestral programs. Since opera was his sole me'tier as a mature composer, that's a pity, for few operatic composers exploited the orchestra's capacities for striking colors and sumptuous textures more effectively; it would have been good to have some orchestral pieces from him.
Well, a quite unexpected and thoroughly delightful record devoted entirely to Puccini's orchestral music has just been issued. The young Italian conductor Riccardo Chailly, recently appointed chief of the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, has chosen this little-known material for his first recording with that orchestra (London digital LDR-71107; cassette LDR5-71107).
There are 11 pieces in this collection, but only the Intermezzo from "Manon Lescaut" is likely to be familiar to most listeners. It is the only orchestral piece from any Puccini opera to occupy even a shaky position in the orchestral repertory, and it was just about the only such piece he wrote for any of his mature operas. For all its polish, and the eloquent performance, it is the least interesting part of this intriguing package.
The elegy for strings called "Crisantemi" (chrysanthemums), written in 1892, is sometimes offered as a novelty by string quartets, and has been recorded by string groups of various sizes. I doubt that it has ever sounded quite as lovely as it does on this new record; what a welcome alternative it could be to some of the overexposed elegiac pieces on our concert programs.
Also known to some record collectors are two of the three Minuets, also for strings. For the last 80 years or so, the second of these very early pieces has been in limbo, but now it has been restored in a new performing edition by Pietro Spada, who has been doing so much reconstructive work with music by Italian opera composers (Claudio Abbado recorded Spada's edition of Verdi's abandoned full-length Overture to "Aida" a few years ago) and is responsible for three of the other items offered here.
Another of the works reconstructed by Spada is a "Preludio sinfonico" composed by Puccini when he was 17: not especially memorable, but certainly well crafted, easy to listen to and, to a surprising degree, characteristic of the style we associate with the mature Puccini.
The more elaborate and quite striking "Capriccio sinfonico," which came along six years later, was Puccini's last student piece. There is very little padding in its 12 minutes; the orchestra is used most imaginatively, and Puccini himself thought enough of the piece to reuse part of it much later to open "La Boheme."
The remaining works are two excerpts apiece from Puccini's first two works for the stage, "Le Villi" (1884) and "Edgar" (1889, but revised as late as 1905). From the former, there is a lovely little Prelude, followed by "La Tregenda" (a brilliantly animated Witches' Dance) from Act III; from the latter, we have the Preludes to Acts I and III, the Act I Prelude having been added for a Madrid performance in 1892 and apparently not heard again until five years ago. Well worth reviving--but so is almost everything in this refreshing and beautifully recorded collection.
Verdi did write overtures for most of his operas, and Chailly, this time with the National Philharmonic, has recorded seven of them (London digital LDR-71095; cassette LDR5-71095), a super-brilliant follow-up to his splendid package of Rossini overtures with the same orchestra. Included here, together with the big three ("La forza del destino," "I vespri siciliani" and "Nabucco"), are the overtures to "Aroldo," "Giovanna d'Arco," "Oberto" and "Luisa Miller." None of these is likely to be more persuasively performed or more stunningly recorded.