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A Wide Selection:Popular Overtures, featuring Enrique Bartiz

The MHS Review 405, VOL. 12, NO.9• 1988

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David M. Greene


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Collections like this seem to turn up here (and elsewhere) with considerable regularity: "Popular Overtures"; "Favorite Overtures"; "Overtures the Whole World (Exclusive of Iran and Libya) Loves." What, pray, is going on out there? I have nothing against over­tures (save from shady characters), but have you ever met an overture addict? Are there orchestras somewhere (Duluth? Pocatello?) that play whole programs of overtures? I've not even en­countered the band-in-the-park doing it.

Senor Batiz's anthology strikes me as a particularly curious olla podrida. For him overture has the widest possible ap­plication. There are operatic overtures, concert overtures, and theater overtures (well, sort of). The first selection is technically not an overture at all, nor, in my opinion, does it qualify as "popular." This is the Sinfonia that in­troduces the third act of Handel's oratorio Solomon. The anonymous libretto presents, in three acts, a rather sanitized picture of the third monarch of Israel. In the first, blissful in a monogamous marriage to Pharaoh's daughter, he completes the Temple; in the second he passes his famous judg­ment on how to determine which of two quarreling mothers should be awarded custody of a child; in the third he entertains (with a masque!) the Queen of Sheba come a-visiting. The Sinfonia, which supposedly depicts her arrival (with camels, limos, frankincense, and myrrh), was a favorite "lollipop" of the late Sir Thomas Beecham.

Felix Mendelssohn's "The Hebrides" and Brahms' "Academic Festival" are both concert overtures--the first really a symphonic seascape, the other a con­geries of university tunes. Young Mendelssohn got his inspiration on the spot when he visited the wild and mis­ty isles off of Scotland's west coast. Brahms' piece was (for Brahms) a rather merry and unbuttoned response to being awarded an honorary degree by the University of Breslau, as it was then call­ed. I might note that Batiz's somewhat hard-driving approach works especial­ly well with the Brahms.

Mozart's Overture to Le nozze di Figaro, a masterly whirligig of brevity, depicts the "crazy day" that is the sub­title of the Beaumarchais play that is the opera's basis. It strikes me as a bit out of keeping in the context of the record, but no one said you have to play the whole thing through nonstop.

Schubert's so-called Overture to Rosamunde, a play by Helmine von Chezy, requires a historical footnote. Somehow he never got around to writing an overture for crazy Chezy's ef­fort (for which he furnished other pieces). Perhaps that was just as well, since Rosamunde rates high in the an­nals of theatrical flops. ("Empty, tedious, and unnatural," was one at­tender's verdict.) For the two nights it ran, Schubert used the overture to his unproduced opera Alfonso und Estrella. Later, for whatever reason, the overture to another opera, Die Zauberbarfe (The Magic Harp), was substituted and that is what is played here. (I hope I have all this right. One source I consulted says that the Zauberbarfe piece was original­ly written for Alfonso, another that the Alfonso piece was originally written for Rosamunde!)

Another of Batiz's selections is the Overture to Rossini's La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie). This opera, writ­ten during the 18 months that included Il barbiere di Siviglia, La Cenerentola, and Otello, was once popular and a favorite of the great Adelina Patti's. Now, in a day of renewed Rossini­worship, it is neglected to the degree that it has drawn only a single complete recording on a hard-to-find Italian label.

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