WEBER Complete Overtures
It might be easy to overlook this new CPO disc of all Weber’s overtures. But it would be a mistake to do so, for what we have here is a recording that will have you tapping your toe along to this glorious music afresh. Howard Griffiths, the British conductor whose recent discography has consisted largely of lesser known 19th-century works, brings thrillingly vibrant and lucid playing from Cologne’s WDR Sinfonieorchester, which is captured in brilliantly clear and realistic sound by West German Radio’s engineers.
Right from the very start the disc’s virtues are apparent: the clarity with which one can hear the flutes shadowing the violins in the opening flourish of the Beherrscher der Geister Overture, for example, or the thrilling agility the cellos bring to their line half a minute in, or the skipping lightness to the contrapuntal passage starting at 2'45". It’s worth noting that the sheer sound of the orchestral tuttis (the big chords ahead of the Freischütz Overture’s final dash, at 7'40", for example) is also unusually exciting.
Griffiths, meanwhile, imbues each work with real urgency, which the orchestra match with virtuosity across the board (of many examples, sample the passage starting at 2'10" in the Silvana Overture), but, though the tempi are spruce, we never get any of the sense of hair-shirt stringency that I feel robs the music of warmth in the playing of the Tapiola Sinfonietta on the most recent rival collection. Nor is he ever afraid to broaden the tempo and take his time when it’s required (as he does with the Oberon Overtures’s big clarinet solo).
The wind-playing is characterful, with a twinkle in the eye of the oboe solos and a mixture of liveliness and mellifluousness from the principal clarinet. The brass-playing is also especially fine throughout. The trumpets are full of martial swagger (backed up by hard-sticked timps), while the horns are able to bray boisterously as well as pare their sound down beautifully: listen to how they manage to both blend and be individually audible in that litmus-test passage, the slow opening of the Freischütz Overture.
What makes the disc so enjoyable, perhaps, is the fact that each overture feels carefully characterised. The little Turandot and the Abu Hassan overtures are vivid in their naive orientalism (the latter complete with cheeky slides in the strings), for example, while few, I’d imagine, will be able to resist the sheer clamour and clatter Griffiths and his players bring to the introduction of the (British) National Anthem in the final pages of the Jubel-Ouvertüre. You might already have a favourite disc of Weber overtures, but I’d say this one demands to be heard.