Belkis, Queen of Sheba was amongst Respighi’s last works. It
was a full length ballet which used a large orchestra, an offstage band
and numerous Eastern instruments, a chorus and narrator. At the premiere
given at La Scala in 1932 an estimated 1000 performers were involved.
Respighi’s opulent score identifies the composer as a pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov.
The Suite was prepared by Respighi himself and published in 1934. This
is the premiere performance of the Suite in the exact form specified by
the composer and uses the tenor instead of a trumpet in the last movement.
The music is tuneful and in places very boisterous
and noisy. It has been criticised as being reminiscent of a Hollywood
Biblical epic but it is probably more accurate to comment how Respighi’s
style has been copied for use in such movies. This performance is well
played and red-blooded where necessary. It is very exciting especially
in the last two movements. It is however perhaps not so brazen as the
Chandos recording with Geoffrey Simon and the Philharmonia but offers
an equally valid and interesting interpretation.
Dance of the Gnomes (sometimes called Ballad of the
Gnomes) is based upon a poem by Carlo Clausetti which describes how
the she-gnomes cavort with their mutual husband and then kill him and
mutilate his corpse. This unpleasant subject has inspired Respighi to
produce one of his best orchestral pieces which is surprisingly seldom
played. It is an explosion of fascinating orchestration with occasional
shrieks and touches of the exotic. There is a very well recorded version
on Chandos in which Edward Downes conducts the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
but I find the conducting of Oue more satisfying and interesting.
The Pines of Rome is probably Respighi’s best known
score and the work which led to his international fame. It has numerous
fine recordings including interpretations by conductors such as Reiner,
Ormandy, Toscanini, Jansons, Karajan and Muti. It would be surprising
if a potential purchaser of this new disc would not already possess
a good version of this masterpiece. However this new recording is a
fine one, although a lower key performance than some; the famous sound
of the nightingale is almost inaudible and the final march is exciting
but not overwhelming.
The recording throughout is clear and accurate but
slightly recessed and without that in-your-face attitude which can make
this music sound overdone. The notes by Richard Freed are exceptionally
comprehensive and the design which features the ‘Queen of Sheba’ by
Edward Dulac is very attractive.
This record focuses on the exotic side of Respighi’s
work and contrasts two little known pieces with a very well known one
all in fine performances, well presented. Recommended.