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Ottorino RESPIGHI (1879-1936)
Pines of Rome (Pini di Roma) (1924) [22:16]
(1. Pines of the Villa Borghese [2:29]; 2. Pines Near a Catacomb [6:13]; 3. Pines of the Janiculum [6:57]; 4. Pines of the Appian Way [4:37])
Fountains of Rome (Fontane di Roma) (1916) [17:21]
(5. Fountains of the Valle Giulia at Dawn [4:13]; 6. Triton Fountain at morn [2:38]; 7. Fountain of Trevi at mid-day [3:24]; 8. Villa Medici Fountain at sunset [5:06])
Metamorphoseon Modi XII Theme and Variations for Orchestra (1930) [25:13]
(9. Theme [1:54]; 10. Modus I [1:56]; 11. Modus II [1:36]; 12. Modus III [2:16]; 13. Modus IV [2:56]; 14. Modus V [0:39]; 15. Modus VI [0:48]; 16. Modus VII [6:59]; 17. Modus VIII [1:18]; 18. Modus IX [2:07]; 19. Modus X [0:42];
20. Modus XI [0:51]; 21. Modus XII [2:10])
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra/Jesús López-Cobos
rec. Music Hall, Cincinnati, Ohio, 4-5 May 1999
TELARC CD-80505 [62:04]

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This fine recording has been available for a while, and has established itself as a major contender, even in this highly competitive territory. The beauty of the disc is that it combines two of Respighi’s most recorded works – Fountains of Rome and Pines of Romewith a far less well-known work, the rather forbiddingly titled Metamorphoseon Modi XII. This seems to be the only recent recording available of this piece, and as such is an important addition to the catalogue.

Metamorphoseon turns out to be a splendid and highly entertaining set of variations. The theme on which it is based is a rather beautiful one, with a strongly modal flavour (in this case it’s the ‘Aeolian’ mode that is used). This gives the melody its distinctly antique quality, a characteristic that you find frequently in Respighi’s music (though the opening does also sound remarkably like Vaughan Williams – try using the passage for an ‘Innocent Ear’ experiment on a musical friend!). The theme, though predominantly minor, always finishes with a switch to the major (a so-called tierce de Picardie), and these features make it easy to identify through the many transformations that follow.

The variations, or ‘Modi’, are mostly quite short, some less than a minute. But Modus VII is the most substantial, and represents a pivotal point in the work. Here, successive instruments – cello, violin, horn, bassoon, flute, clarinet, harp, oboe etc. – have extended overlapping cadenzas of great beauty, and the music seems caught in a dream until it the graceful Modus VIII moves us on again.

From there, there is a sense of gathering excitement, as the texture slowly builds up to the mighty conclusion of Modus XII. López-Cobos and his players give a thrilling and convincing performance of what, for me, is an undoubted masterpiece, worthy to stand in the repertoire alongside such works as the Brahms Haydn Variations or Elgar’s Enigma set. My only reservation was Respighi’s rather gratuitous use of full organ for the final chord only – a crudely sensational touch at the end of a finely wrought piece.

The performances of the two Roman ‘war-horses’ are on the same exalted level. Pines comes first, with its chattering woodwind and strings evoking children at play. The stark contrast with the gloomy Catacombs is caught superbly, as is the warm nocturnal ambience of the Janiculum. Here, Respighi famously – and highly controversially – introduced the recorded song of a nightingale. A bad mistake in my view; I recall a Proms performance a year ort two back when the members of the audience who had either chosen not to consult their programmes or couldn’t read English anyway looked up bemusedly to the heights of the Albert Hall, trying to locate the bird that was ‘interrupting’ the music. On any level, this is an aesthetic misjudgement by Respighi, though fortunately brief enough to be a small ‘glitch’ in the overall work.

And of course, what follows is memorable. I Pini della Via Appia – Pines of the Appian Way - has established itself as one of the great orchestral show-pieces of the 20th century. And López-Cobos certainly builds his climax quite wonderfully well, avoiding the temptation to let rip too soon. However, there is a slight reservation here to do with the recording, which is generally very fine. The brass are balanced just too close, so that there is a loss of perspective. This is noticeable too in the Trevi movement of Fountains of Rome, and it simply means that other orchestral detail is obliterated.

Fountains of Rome, subject to the reservation expressed above, is beautifully done too, with quite magical atmosphere in the first movement, capturing the early morning coolness of the fountain at the Valle Giulia, and an equally lovely conclusion at the Villa Medici. 

If you are primarily after the ‘Rome’ works, then my personal vote would certainly go to the spectacular Daniele Gatti version on RCA, with the benefit of a fine Italian orchestra (Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia), at the top of their game, though the now quite old Muti/Philadelphia recording is certainly still up there as a major alternative.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

Respighi website


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