Concert planners seem to have turned away from the overture. Time-poor 21st-century audiences want to plunge straight into the main event, yet I for one would not complain if my evening began with the high-spirited Donna Diana Overture by Rezniçek or Nicolai’s overture to The Merry Wives of Windsor.
For the overture-deprived, these five separate releases are invaluable. Taken from the Decca catalogue and recorded mostly in the late 1950s, they include almost every overture of note – or every note of overtures – between Gluck and Mascagni. (Missing are Berlioz, favourites like Mendelssohn’s Hebrides and Brahms’s Academic Festival and the best 19th-century light overture: Sullivan’s for Iolanthe.)
The conductors are specialists and primarily men of the theatre, so performances are idiomatic. Vol 5 has Gianandrea Gavazzeni conducting the Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Florentino in Italian overtures and intermezzi; Vol 3 explores the German repertoire (including four by Beethoven and two by Schubert) with the cool, clear-headed Karl Münchinger. Viennese overtures in Vol 4 are in the capable hands of Willi Boskovsky and the Vienna Philharmonic, setting a standard in Johann Strauss and Suppé.
Vol 1 contains rare music: preludes from operas which are rarely performed, such as Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten, or are virtually unheard of like Goldmark’s Merlin and Goetz’s Francesa von Rimini. The fulsome 1978 recording is conducted by Kurt Herbert Adler, for 30 years General Director of the San Francisco Opera. My other pick is Volume 2 with the London Symphony Orchestra under Piero Gamba. As well as nine Rossini overtures in delightfully pointed readings, it provides a mixture of pieces both well-known (Verdi and Mascagni) and unusual (Cleopatra Overture by Luigi Mancinelli). Gamba’s performance of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture is beautifully paced, suggesting a genuinely exciting evening to come.