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Ottorino RESPIGHI (1879-1936)
Metamorphoseon. Modi XII. Tema e variazioni (1930) [26:50]
Rossiniana. Suite per Orchestra (1925) [21:49]
Burlesca per Orchestra (1906) [6:14]
Passacaglia in do minore di Giovanni Sebastiano Bach (1930) [13:42]
Wuppertal Symphony Orchestra/George Hanson
rec. Stadthalle Wuppertal, 6-7, 18-20, 25-27 September 2000
MD+G MDG 935 1030-6 [69:23]

MD+G's unhackneyed Respighi program offers the recorded premiere of the previously unpublished Burlesca of 1906. The piece is predictably brilliant and colorful, but the annotations, which define the burlesca as "a composition of scherzoso character" and invoke models ranging from Bach's E minor harpsichord partita through to Richard Strauss, suggest an extroverted, toccata-like fantasy - something rather different from what we actually get. Instead, the fluid rhythmic motion, the quasi-Impressionist harmonies sidling stepwise, and the ominous climactic tuttis in minor (with the triumphal perorations finally breaking through to major) all combine to produce something resembling the French post-Wagnerians. If you like the symphonic works of Dukas, Chausson, and Lalo, you'll feel right at home here.

Metamorphoseon XII Modi isn't identified as a premiere, but it was new to me. The piece reflects Respighi's attempts "to make [the] artistic and human values [of modal harmony] serviceable to the modern tonal idiom," as cited by his wife, Elsa. As a theme, firm-boned legato strings are answered by a questing, mildly dissonant clarinet; there follow twelve variations, each cast in another of the archaic church modes. The well-crafted, dramatic, and colorful score offers numerous brief opportunities for virtuoso display. Liturgical associations aren't altogether banished - the parallel string triads in Modus I inevitably suggest an organ improvisation - and the disproportionately long (7:12), meandering Modus VII ("Cadenze") bogs down. Things pick up again as the oboe introduces the bubbly good humor of Modus VIII, in which Respighi's own distinctive voice finally emerges. Earlier on, we hear flashbacks of Elgar in the bounding drive of Modus VI, of Wagner in the Siegfriedisch horn calls of Modus VII, and of Respighi himself in a Pines of Rome-like quiet clarinet solo. The buildup to the concluding organ-and-orchestra tutti, its close, rich brass chords pointing the way to Ben-Hur, is effective, though conductor Hansen oddly short-changes the final cadential unison in both weight and duration.

The remainder of the program looks back to earlier masters. In Rossiniana, Respighi repaints Rossini's occasional pieces in broader strokes, sometimes tapping into unsuspected expressive depths. Thus, poignant harmonic turns give the opening Capri e Taormina movement an reflective cast. The following Lamento begins with tragic breadth, veers into an ill-matched contest between a simple reed melody and punctuating full brass chords, and concludes with a long-limbed lyric theme unfolding over gently pulsing winds. In the other two movements - a graceful waltz, and a rousing tarantella framing a central chorale - Rossini's familiar quirky lightness is more readily recognizable. The orchestration of the Bach Passacaglia and Fugue, commissioned by Toscanini, includes some nice chamber-like passages and boasts a smoother, more refined orchestral sonority than the better-known Stokowski arrangement, though it becomes equally portentous when the heavy brass get involved.

Save for that final note of the Metamorphoseon, George Hanson leads with stylish assurance, and the Wuppertal Symphony, though perhaps not well-known, sounds absolutely first-class in all departments: I particularly like the way the lean, focused string tone opens out with an impressive amplitude for the surging crescendos. MD+G's recording, which I heard in "normal" rather than SACD stereo, is clear, vivid, and wide-ranging.

Stephen Francis Vasta

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