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Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)

Symphonic Suites

imagined by Carlo Rizzi
Welsh National Opera Orchestra, Carlo Rizzi (conductor)
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: December 2022
Hodinott Hall, Millennium Centre, Cardiff, Wales
Produced by Nicholas Parker
Engineered by Mike Hatch
Release date: February 2024
Total duration: 70 minutes 24 seconds

Puccini never made any orchestral suites from his immensely popular operas. Carlo Rizzi's new imaginings neatly fill this gap (all the best bits without any of that pesky singing …) and this useful album also explores two early—and decidedly Wagnerian—symphonic works that Puccini composed before he 'made it' in opera.

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Here’s what an elderly person of the greatest conceivable musical eminence wrote to his publisher in 1884, just as Puccini was embarking on his international career as an opera composer:

I’ve heard good things about Puccini. I’ve seen a letter that speaks very well of him. He follows modern trends, and that’s natural, but he remains wedded to melody, which is neither modern nor ancient. It seems, though, that the symphonic element predominates in him: and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s merely that one needs to be a little cautious. Opera is opera; symphony is symphony; and I don’t believe that in opera it’s good to have a symphonic interlude merely for the pleasure of making the orchestra dance.

The writer was, of course, Giuseppe Verdi, now in his early 70s and, not for the first or last time, voicing his discontent with modern musical manners. In launching this homily, Verdi conveniently forgot that, when the mood took him, he had himself indulged in some elaborate 'orchestral dancing', notably in the overtures to Luisa Miller (1849), Les Vêpres siciliennes (1855) and, mostly recently, in his abortive attempt to write a full-scale overture to Aida (1871). But what distressed him was the fact that, in the newly formed Italian state, the conservatory curriculum involved ever-more extensive training in instrumental music, which inevitably meant immersion in music from the German-speaking lands. To some extent this curriculum change came in response to shifting musical tastes. In Milan, increasingly thought of as the cultural capital of the peninsula, the conductor Franco Faccio began in 1872 a series of orchestral concerts with the orchestra of La Scala; later in the decade this led to the formation of the Società dell’Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala, which gave around six concerts a year. About the same time there began a series of Concerti Popolari, given by pupils at the Conservatory. It is well to recall, though, that by today’s standards these concerts were 'popolari' indeed: rarely were complete symphonies essayed, individual movements, concert overtures and tone poems were far more likely.

It was into this world that Puccini entered the Milan Conservatory in 1880. Until that time, most of his compositions had, inevitably in the circumstances, reflected the fact that he came from a long line of religious composers. His magnum opus had been a Messa a 4 voci, an imposing piece marking his graduation from Lucca’s Istituto Pacini and showing above all an impressive control of the kind of complex counterpoint then thought proper for liturgical composition. But the Milan Conservatory changed all that. There is little doubt that he considered operatic composition the ultimate goal, and for this reason haunted Milan’s theatres as well as writing a number of 'Romanze' and other types of proto-operatic fare; but in his first two years his most important composition was a Preludio sinfonico in A major, first performed at a student concert in July 1882. Writing about it in a Milanese newspaper, the prominent critic Filippo Filippi was less than impressed, and made clear that one principal reason for his displeasure was that Puccini’s music displayed such an evident debt to the music of Richard Wagner, still thought a 'dangerous' figure by those in musical power in the city. Listening with today’s ears, we will also be struck by the Wagnerian influence: the opening idea comes close to plagiarising the Prelude of Lohengrin (albeit opening with woodwind rather than strings); and—perhaps more important—the theme then returns periodically in a somewhat episodic manner, without the firm structural sense that his teachers might have preferred (albeit with one grand climax in the manner of the Tannhäuser overture). But we may also find remarkable the way in which, as well as sounding shamelessly Wagnerian, the Preludio is also unmistakeably Puccini, particularly in its characteristic cadential patterns, with melodic closure always delayed until the second half of the measure. Some time after the first performance, Puccini was encouraged to make a large cut in the middle, something that makes for a tighter musical argument but in the process loses us some delightful thematic variations. Both versions, with and without the cut, are available in this recording.

Puccini’s graduation piece from the Conservatory was yet another 'symphonic' piece, the Capriccio sinfonico, first performed in July 1883. Filippi was there again, critical pen at the ready; but he had now changed his tune decisively, announcing the arrival of a 'rare musical temperament and one that is especially symphonic'. Quite what precipitated this critical volte face is not entirely clear, but it must have had something to do with a new formal clarity Puccini had found: while the Preludio is determinedly episodic, the Capriccio is in the clearest of ternary forms, with an opening Andante, a clearly contrasting Allegro vivace, and then a return of the Andante. More than this, both sections show clear evidence of what the Germans approvingly call thematische Arbeit, thematic working of the developmental kind. This is even true across sections, in that the lugubrious descending figure that opens the Andante is clearly related to the boisterous descending figure that opens the Allegro. The 'mystery' of Puccini finding his individual voice so quickly is, if anything, compounded here by the fact that the main theme of the Allegro section is identical to the opening theme of La bohème (1896), the energetic motive that comes to be associated with the four Bohemians and their playful energy. But what is most striking is surely the young composer’s control of the music’s ebb and flow: while the Preludio sinfonico is loosely episodic, this Capriccio, while being full of new ideas (the opening themes of both sections give way to further distinctive melodic material), maintains a firm sense of direction: a gift for knowing when to linger and when to press on, that the future musical dramatist would never lose.

From time to time over the next forty years, as Puccini triumphed as an opera composer, the idea of purely instrumental composition occasionally resurfaced in his life and works. Most obviously, perhaps, his first international success, Manon Lescaut (1893) has an instrumental Intermezzo between Act 2 and 3, one which is overly programmatic but also recalls (perhaps for the last time) the powerful influence of Wagner on his instrumental thought. More significant, though, is the fact that all of his most popular operas start 'symphonically': with a sequence in which the orchestra supplies the essential musical continuity, while the characters onstage supplying fragmentary additions and commentary. There was also an interesting moment in the second decade of the new century, when Puccini’s publisher Ricordi was approached by a cinema company, asking whether the composer might be interested in supplying the 'background score' for a non-narrative reimagining of some of his greatest operas. Puccini declined, perhaps with some reluctance given the fees likely to have been involved: but in truth he earned more from rental fees and commissions for new works than could ever have accrued from mechanical performance. The thought-experiment, though, the imagining of what these non-narrative 'sound-tracks' might have been, is constantly intriguing: what might they have taught us about Puccini more generally?

One possible answer is provided by the two orchestral suites imagined and performed here by Carlo Rizzi; and the insights they provide are rich indeed. For example, the immediate juxtaposition of parts of the score normally separated by act divisions and narrative development demonstrate that Puccini habitually thought in terms of closely-connected 'layers' of musical invention. In the case of the Tosca suite, the kinship between Angelotti’s music and that accompanying the torture of Caravadossi is made musically manifest, as is—on the other side of the musical spectrum, as it were—the shared inspiration of Tosca’s 'Vissi d’arte' and the Act 1 love duet between her and Cavaradossi. In other cases, such juxtapositions can become poignant indeed. In the Butterfly suite the fact that the famous flower duet can meld so seamlessly into the Act 1 closing love duet demonstrates the triumph of hope, deluded hope, over reality. Another general aspect of these suites is—in works thought to be unashamed celebrations of vocal inspiration—how self-sufficient the orchestral underpinning frequently is: so much so that the musical substance of entire arias can be delivered without the voice being present, in the process revealing how subtle changes in orchestral colouring are constantly marking the progress of the melody.

What all the pieces gathered in this recording above all demonstrate is the richness and originality of Puccini’s orchestral imagination. A glance at any of his autograph scores will reveal his obsessive concern with the detail of precise instrumental combinations. Whole theses could be written about his individual use of wind and brass instruments; of flutes in their lowest register to give a delicate sheen to the string sound; of the bass clarinet as a vital part of the wind ensemble; of the brass con sordine for a 'distanced' effect; the list could go on and on. It is true that, in one sense, the promise of those early symphonic sketches was never realised: there are no further large-scale instrumental pieces in the Puccini catalogue. But, in another sense, their precocious orchestral imagination was never forgotten: it merely migrated, becoming rechannelled in the service of compelling musical drama.

Roger Parker © 2024

Some time ago, while conducting the orchestral suite from Der Rosenkavalier, I found myself reflecting on the fact that in Strauss’s operas the orchestra is always deeply embedded in the harmonic and melodic creation and rarely serves simply as an accompaniment, support or introduction for the singers. I remember dwelling on how different this was from the main Italian operatic repertoire, as in the works of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi and … Puccini? No! I immediately knew, as I ran over all the operas in my head, that I could not place Puccini in this group and my mind quickly started to play with the idea of how some of his greatest works might be re-imagined in a purely orchestral version, in their own right, just as it has been done for Der Rosenkavalier.

These thoughts stayed with me but it was only during the closed down months of the pandemic that I finally had enough free time in which to return properly to the possibility of the ‘Puccini orchestral suites’ and to explore deeply the two operas that I believed promised the most—Tosca and Madama Butterfly. Of course, I instantly faced many questions. Which parts of the operas to choose? In which order? Should I include all the highlights and best-known arias? How long should the suites be? As I studied the scores in detail, and with a different perspective, I was guided by what had always been clear in my mind from the beginning—that, after all my re-imagining, selecting and arranging, the final works must be completely pure and faithful to Puccini’s original orchestration alone, with nothing added to 'cover' any perceivable lack of vocal line.

There is no doubt that I felt passionately about putting a spotlight on the exceptional orchestrator that Puccini was, but I had other questions to ponder as I created these new pieces. Who might listen to them? Would conductors want to conduct them and orchestras play them? What would concert goers find to enjoy in them? Again I found the answers in the sheer brilliance of Puccini’s original music. These are, after all, his masterpieces in another form and I hope and believe that the suites will find a place in the concert repertoire and stand alongside symphonies and concertos. I also hope that those who already love Tosca and Butterfly will enjoy the opportunity to focus wholly on the orchestra as they listen, and that people who are usually more drawn to the concert hall than to the opera house will be rewarded by exploring something new.

In the end my only aim is to share and celebrate Puccini with all of them.

Carlo Rizzi © 2024

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