The best overtures of all time

Three of today’s leading conductors share their favourite overtures

The best overtures of all time

The overture was once an important part of a concert’s programme, but have now declined in popularity to the dismay of many. It is usually an orchestral piece which forms the opener for an opera or play. An overture provides an opening to a larger work, using themes from the rest of the piece, but is often played as a standalone work.

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Here are the best overtures according to three of the world’s top conductors.

The best overtures

Sir Antonio Pappano’s top three overtures

Weber’s Euryanthe is such a special piece, with a double quartet of eight violins alone creating a shimmering, mysterious mood. Really fascinating – and virtuosic to the last.

Rossini’s The Siege of Corinth has very big bones and is very grand – yet it is hardly ever played.

‘Of course, I couldn’t do without Verdi’s Force of Destiny overture! The Sicilian Vespers is wonderful, but the Forza somehow plays better.’

And one I hope to do:

Berlioz’s The Corsair is a particularly brilliant piece of writing by a master of the orchestra.’

Domingo Hindoyan’s top three overtures

‘Both the musical and the philosophical content of Leonore No. 3 are the result of a long search by Beethoven for what he really wanted for his opera Fidelio.

Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides is a favourite of mine from an early period of my studies, and probably one of the first pieces I ever conducted.

Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde Prelude is a big piece in which I can feel a synthesis of the deeply emotional content of what’s going to happen in the opera.’

And one I hope to do:

‘In the Prelude to Act I of Parsifal, Wagner has this perfect way of writing about hope, faith and devotion: right from the beginning, it’s like looking at the sky and the stars!’

Mark Elder’s top three overtures

Weber’s Der Freischütz is a wonderful overture: strong, substantial and a Hallé favourite – not just of our founder conductor, Charles Hallé, but also of John Barbirolli.

Berlioz wrote some of the best overtures and Benvenuto Cellini is a fine example: it always gets a good hand from the public. It’s like saying “OK, we’re ready, we’re off”.

‘The Hallé and I had a terrific success with Wagner’s Tannhäuser overture on a German tour a few years ago. The original overture (without the Venusberg Music) is not often done, because the ending has this incredibly difficult violin writing; but if you’ve got time to prepare it, it makes a very big effect.’

And one I hope to do:

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‘I think Reznicek’s Donna Diana is quite tricky. I should probably foist it on the Hallé when they’re least expecting it…’