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CD: Crotchet AmazonUK AmazonUS

Ottorino RESPIGHI (1879-1936)
Orchestral Works

Il Tramonto (1918) [15:56]
Christine Rice (mezzo)
Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Rome/Antonio Pappano
rec. January 2007, Sala Santa Cecilia, Rome
Pini di Roma (1924) [22:02]
Fontane di Roma (1917) [15:22]
Feste Romane (1929) [23:52]
Philadelphia Orchestra/Riccardo Muti
rec. October, December 1984, Memorial Hall, Fairmount Park, Philadelphia
Gli Uccelli (1927) [19:15]
Trittico Botticelliano (1927) [18:59]
Academy of St Martin in the Fields/Sir Neville Marriner
rec. January 1976, No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London
La Sensitiva (1914) [30:52]
Janet Baker (mezzo)
City of London Sinfonia/Richard Hickox
rec. February 1990, Henry Wood Hall, London
EMI CLASSICS 2376762 [77:36 + 69:23]
Experience Classicsonline

This is one of the latest releases in EMI’s 20th Century Classics series (see reviews of Ravel, Stravinsky and Schoenberg). It makes a very successful survey of Respighi’s “greatest hits” and it’s a great place to start if you’re getting to know the composer for the first time.
Muti’s Philadelphia recording of the Roman Trilogy has been for many - including me - the top choice for this coupling since it was released in 1985. It is most welcome to have it in this bargain compilation sounding as stunning as ever. The HMV sound engineers worked wonders with this music when they recorded it, capturing every facet of Respighi’s glittering orchestration with a brilliance that has seldom been equalled. Just listen to the thunder of the legionaries on the Appian Way (CD1, track 5): with a decent sound system your floor will shake, something very important to the composer! The pristine production values extend to every aspect of these works: from the sparkling winds and percussion outside the Villa Borghese (track 2) to the bells of the Jubilee Festival (track 11). Everything is crystal clear, whether listening through speakers or (especially) through headphones, and this is exactly what you need for such orchestration, of which the composer was justly proud. All of this would count for little were it not for the outstanding quality of the playing. The Philadelphia Orchestra clearly had a whale of a time as they were making this record: Mediterranean warmth oozes from nearly every bar. The strings whizz and fizz in the opening movement of Pines, making the transition to the darkness of the catacombs all the more startling. Even there the trumpet solo sings out beautifully before being subsumed into the climactic chant. The clarinettist at the Janiculum plays with sumptuous richness, placed at just the right distance from the microphone - tasteful engineering again - while the recorded birdsong is subtle and mercifully brief! It is wonderful to have a red-blooded Italian at the helm. Muti launches himself into the energy of these works, especially Feste Romane which he recognises as being ridiculously vulgar, but which he nevertheless takes seriously. The effect is as subtle as a brick, but is nevertheless mesmerising: the chimes at the Circus (track 10) are grotesque and almost comical as the Christians are led to the lions, while the Epiphany Festival (track 13) sounds almost pagan in its raw energy. It’s all wonderful stuff, and Muti can show expert control too, not least in the way he shapes the Fountains with an eye to the arch-like structure: there is a palpable sense of build from the climax of the third movement to the gentle twilight of the fourth. All in all this is a marvellous achievement and it is worth having this set for these performances alone.
The treats don’t end there, though. Respighi’s decadent post-Romantic vocal textures are embraced with perhaps surprising vigour by two great British singers. Christine Rice’s chocolaty mezzo is just right for the twilit world of Il Tramonto, a setting of Shelley’s poem The Sunset, while Janet Baker is rich and lustrous in repertoire that is far from her home territory. There are no texts or translations, though, so you need to be ready to let yourself wallow in the treacly textures rather than follow every word.
Those other British stars, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, acquit themselves admirably in the very endearing Trittico Botticelliano, Respighi’s response to three masterworks in the Uffizi in Florence. La Primavera has an excitable sense of awakening in its filigree orchestration and its jaunty late theme is very well played. The frostier world of L’adorazione die Magi contains a version of the Christmas hymn Veni, Veni Emmanuel, reworked in Respighi’s inimitable style, while La nascita di Venere consists of a crescendo depicting her approach to the shore, which then recedes like a wave sinking back. It’s very successful and their playing is every bit as idiomatic for the charming Birds suite. However, Marriner lets them down very badly in the well-known prelude to the suite which is ridiculously slow, so as to be almost elephantine! It ruins the mood of the piece and does nothing to prepare for the delights that lie ahead. It’s all the more bizarre because the tempo is much more sprightly for the theme’s reprise in the finale, making the lumpen prelude feel like even more of an aberration. This is the only disappointing moment in the set, perhaps amplified by the fact that everything around it is of so much quality.
Still, if you can get over this then you’ll find a Respighi set to cherish, though the documentation is minimal. It’s very well played, it sounds magnificent and it’s at superbudget price. Why hesitate?
Simon Thompson


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