It pains me somewhat to read two previous reviews on Amazon.com which essentially disparage Puccini's operatic output in favour of these slight, but charming orchestral pieces. They are youthful, even student, works all written before the composer was barely into his thirties and while they already amply display his gifts for plangent melody and richly layered orchestration, they certainly do not represent the best of his composition. Nonetheless, we have here an hour of gorgeous indulgence; Chailly and the RSO Berlin bestow the most affectionate degree of rubato and singing tone upon them, while the Jesus-Christus-Kirche once again affords a golden aureola of sound around the orchestra.
It is fun to identify the themes and passages which surface in the later, greater works; the most obvious is the rumbustious opening of "La Bohème" as it appears in the "Capriccio" and the elements of the Minuets and "Crisantemi" (originally a string quartet, here sumptuously orchestrated) which made it into "Manon Lescaut". Perhaps the most derivative, least typical and least arresting items here are those three 18C-pastiche Minuets, especially as they are juxtaposed with the succeeding "Intermezzo" from that opera, which finds Puccini in his most plaintive and dramatic mode, more typical of his mature style with a Wagnerian chromaticism to add depth of passion.
So many of the best features of Puccini's orchestral writing are already apparent in these early works: the plaintive, soaring melodies, the vivacious waltzes, the dark orchestral textures. Sometimes an over-fondness for harps and flutes hints at a slightly saccharine quality and the listener may quite frequently find that Puccini's music is more redolent of Mascagni than his later self - but there is nothing wrong with that.
The recital ends with Puccini in his most restrained and melancholy vein with the dense yet delicately scored threnody "Crisantemi". This is a lovely disc which might encourage those less enamoured of Puccini's vocal writing to listen again with an orchestrally-tuned ear to the marvellous passage in his operas where the instruments and not the singers create the drama - such as when Tosca arranges Scarpia's funeral rites or the music depicting dawn opening Act 3 and leading into Cavaradossi's lament.