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Ottorino RESPIGHI (1879-1936)
Gli ucceli (The Birds) (1927) [19:43]
Il tramonto * (The Sunset) (1914) [15:55]
Trittico boticelliano (Three Botticelli Pictures) (1927) [1951]
* Ewa Podleś (contralto)

Wroclaw Chamber Orchestra/Michal Nesterowicz
rec. Polish Radio Great Studio, Wroclaw, July 1997
DUX 0489 [56:01]

The main interest in this album has to be the acclaimed Polish-born, contralto Ewa Podleś’ rendition of Respighi’s Il tramonto, a lyric poem for mezzo-soprano and string quartet; or, as in this case, string orchestra with additional double-bass. A number of eminent artists have realised the beauty in Respighi’s setting of Shelley’s poem, The Sunset, including Janet Baker (Collins 13492 [1992], alas no longer available), Linda Finnie (Chandos CHAN 8913 [1991]) and Renata Scotto (Vox Classics 7201 [1997]). In notes to the latter recording, Renata Scotto eloquently comments, "The Sunset is a song of the dusk of love, which must follow love’s fulfilment, and the dusk of the sun itself. Respighi’s love and his love of nature are both in this work, with nature as the perfect frame for his portrait of love." The story is slight: a young couple walk in the country as the sun sets, they make love in the twilight, the moon rises, the stars appear; but in the morning the girl awakes to find her lover dead at her side and begins her perpetual mourning. Ms Scotto continued: "It might have seemed banal in the musical retelling today with Shelley’s little story perhaps a bit old fashioned – but not at all, really. And the strings are as eloquent as the voice in retelling the story, as, for example, in the beautiful cello solo as ‘the Lady found her lover dead and cold’ or in the final ensemble that accompanies the peaceful epitaph at the close."

Not surprisingly, Respighi responds to Shelley’s nature writing with some of his most beautiful music in the vocal and instrumental lines but there is no lack of surging passion in the opening string scene-setting and at emotional climaxes. Podleś has beauty and power, a most engaging timbre, she colours her voice most eloquently throughout: warm and tender in the love sequence, deep and darkly dramatic in her shocked, grief-stricken central outburst and compassionate during the Lady’s withdrawal and plea for peace of mind in the closing stanzas,

Trittico boticelliano is an example of Respighi’s love of the music of the past. Three famous Botticelli paintings are musically illustrated in the style of earlier composers from the Middle Ages to the Baroque, but presented in modern orchestral dress. All three paintings hang in Florence’s Uffizi gallery. The first is ‘La Primavera’ (The Spring). It is full of joy, (echoes of the Fountains of Rome are evident in the opening); there are ecstatic Vivaldian trills, suggestive of birdsong and the rustling of leaves, and lusty horn calls. Nesterowicz’s reading dances brightly along in brilliant Spring sunshine, yet Jesús López-Cobos on Telarc CD-80309 (1992) is that bit more vital. The second picture, ‘L’adorazione dei Magi’ (The Adoration of the Magi), echoes the composer’s Church Windows, and alludes to the famous Epiphany hymn tune ‘O Come, O Come Emanuel’. But here López-Cobos’s reading is more polished, smoother; he more subtly paints his pastoral scene, his Epiphany hymn is more moving and his evocation, one imagines, of camels and desert caravans making up the flight into Egypt less shrill, more colourful and real. The final picture is ‘La nascita di Venere’ (The Birth of Venus). Respighi sound-paints with an Impressionist brush to evoke waves and gentle sea breezes. Nesterowicz’s vision of Venus rising from the sea in her shell is rapt enough but the sound staging and the greater refinements and radiant ecstasies of the Telarc recording impress even more.

The five movements of Gli ucelli (The Birds) composed in the same year as the Three Boticelli Pictures, are arrangements for small orchestra of harpsichord and lute pieces composed by various 17th and 18th century composers. The ‘Preludio’, based on an aria by Bernardo Pasquini (1637-1710), contains the tune made famous by the British TV antiques series Going for a Song, and is something of an operatic overture, presaging material of the following movements. Tamas Vasary’s (1991) reading of this introduction is full of fun and little characterful felicities (Chandos CHAN 8913). Vasary has more bounce and sheer joie de vivre than Nesterowicz’s rather heavy opening although things improve markedly after about 0:42. Nesterowicz’s ‘La Colomba’ (The Dove), adopted from music by the French composer, Jacques de Gallot, is stately, serene dignity with delightful, nicely balanced trills, and gorgeous string playing. Vasary is no less affecting and he accentuates the music’s sweet plaintiveness. ‘La Gallina’ (The Hen), inspired by Rameau harpsichord music, is a comic evocation of the hen’s raucous call and odd, jerky stance and movements. Both the Telarc and Dux recordings’ artists revel in this delightful movement. ‘L’Usignuolo’ (The Nightingale) is based on an anonymous 17th century English source. Nesterowicz creates a dreamy nocturnal picture with the higher woodwinds singing the nightingale’s song most prettily but the horn solo would have been more poetic if it had been recessed more. Although Vasary’s bird song might not be quite so sweet, he scores with a more subtly detailed, more poetic interpretation, the bass dynamics more shaded, more convincing of a nocturnal evocation. Finally, ‘Il cucu’ (The Cuckoo), inspired by a harpsichord toccata by Pasquini, is another little gem. Vasary suggests a winsome welcome to Spring and a sometimes flattering, sometimes witty evocation of this often troublesome little bird while Nesterowicz’s portrait is somewhat harsher.

It goes without saying that there is merit in Nesterowicz’s readings of Gli uccelli and Trittico botticelliano but, in a competitive field, I prefer the alternatives as above. Readers might care to note that many of my fellow Respighi enthusiasts admire the bargain Artemis Vanguard Double ATM-CD 1227 that not only includes both works performed by the Australian CO conducted by Christopher Lyndon-Gee but Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances Suites 1 & 3 on one disc and the Feste Romane and The Pines of Rome by the Baltimore SO conducted by Commissiona on the other.

Ewa Podleś must be added to the list of illustrious singers – including Janet Baker, Linda Finnie and Renata Scotto who have illuminated Respighi’s beautiful setting of Shelley’s poem. The other works are well played but there are better versions.

Ian Lace


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