It is common these days to hear of the travails of
the classical recording industry. Even star artists make few recordings
and financial difficulties are said to afflict most record labels. However,
amid all the doom and gloom the Oregon Symphony was able to announce
recently that a single benefactor, Gretchen Brooks, had given them a
gift of $1m to finance a programme of recordings. I recently
reviewed the first CD made under this arrangement which consisted
of Stravinsky ballet music and now this second disc has been released.
To judge from these two CDs the gift is most welcome as it enables a
wider audience to appreciate what a fine orchestra currently exists
Actually, the recording of Roman Festivals is
not new. It was included on what I believe was the first disc which
the orchestra made for Delos but its inclusion here to complete Respighi's
Roman triptych is entirely logical.
All three of these tone poems are opulently orchestrated,
especially The Pines, and this collection is thus a good opportunity
for us to hear what an excellent band James DePriest has built up since
he became Music Director in 1980. These pieces rely above all on orchestral
colouring to make their effect and DePriest, in drawing marvellously
fine and responsive playing from his orchestra, ensures that Respighi's
scores are played for all they are worth. All three performances are
rich in atmosphere and I admired particularly the sensitivity with which
are played such movements as 'The Fountain of the Giulia Valley at Dawn'
and 'Pines near a Catacomb'.
This is not to imply that there is any lack of power
in the louder passages. Far from it. The account of 'The Pines of the
Appian Way', for example, is simply stunning with DePriest controlling
the celebrated crescendo magnificently.
The Delos engineers also play a full part in the success
of this issue. The recordings, which were made in the orchestra's 'home'
concert hall, are absolutely superb. The sound is full and rich, abundant
detail is audible and a wholly believable "front to back"
perspective is conveyed. Oddly, the famous nightingale at the end of
'The Pines of the Janiculum' is heard more distantly than on some other
recordings I have heard but I for one don't mind this.
Incidentally, though the recording of Roman Festivals
was made some fourteen years before its two companions were set down
I did not notice that the older recording was any less good than the
more recent ones.
There are many recordings of these pieces in the catalogues
but these newcomers must rank amongst the best now available. Apart
from a couple of editorial slips on the back cover of the booklet the
documentation is good. All in all, a distinguished issue which will
give much pleasure and can be recommended confidently.
Christopher Thomas has also listened to this
Any new recording of Respighi's Roman Trilogy faces a "legion" of healthy competition, both historic and modern. Indeed, if truth be known, I doubt that many enthusiasts would expect the Oregon Symphony under James DePreist to figure greatly amongst their many fine rivals. In reality, this could not be further from the truth for this is undoubtedly one of the finest recordings of these works released in recent years.
DePreist has been in residence with the Oregon Symphony since 1980 and judging by their playing here I am surprised that we have not heard more of them. He has clearly put together an orchestra capable of impressing immediately, the performances being vivid, atmospheric and virtuosic.
Interestingly, the recording I found myself reaching for in comparison is also by an American orchestra, the Pittsburgh Symphony under Lorin Maazel (Sony SK 66843). When this disc was released in 1996 I clearly recall it knocking me out and I still find that for sheer majesty and spectacle it possibly just has the edge. Yet in moments such as the closing bars of La fontana di Villa Medici al tramonto at the conclusion of Fountains I find the sheer beauty and delicacy of DePreist's orchestra irresistible. The feeling of warmth as the sun sets, church bells tolling in the distance, is almost tangible.
Here in fact is one of the unusual features of this disc in that DePreist chooses to begin with Fountains rather than the expected Pines. I suspect that he knew fully what he was doing for it immediately draws one into the performance. The dancing water nymphs of La fontana del Tritone al mattino are caught with charm and the transition into the spectacle of The Trevi Fountain at Midday is deftly handled (some glorious brass sounds here). DePreist lingers over the final movement considerably more so than Maazel (5:50 as opposed to 4:54) and to my ears it comes off the better for it, this being one of the highlights of the disc and as evocative as I have ever heard it played.
The clarity and balance of the recording helps to give the opening of Pines an irrepressible exuberance, the shouts and screams of the children as they play amongst the pines of the Villa Borghese growing ever more raucous. As fine as the playing is though Maazel and his Pittsburgh forces are marginally more impressive in the final march, I pini della Via Appia, as the tramp of the soldiers feet approaching Rome grows to a superbly paced and spectacular conclusion.
By comparison I subscribe to the view that Roman Festivals is the weakest of these three works yet in some ways it is perhaps the most stamina sapping of all on the players, particularly the brass. There is still so much to admire in Respighi's skilful and extrovert orchestration (try the crunching climactic build up from around 2:45 in Circenses). Here the sheer weight of sound the Oregon Symphony produces is awesome. In the festivities of L'Ottobrata also there is a real sense of joy although Maazel's slightly brisker tempo works well here. The strident sounds of The Epiphany celebrations in the final movement complete with barrel organ, inebriated reveller and the strains of popular song are captured with riotous good humour.
Despite the fourteen years that separates the recordings of Fountains and Pines from Roman Festivals Delos have captured a vivid, finely balanced and above all exciting sound throughout. Whilst Maazel's Pittsburgh performances will still give me pleasure this fine newcomer is a triumph and can be recommended without reservation.