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Ottorino RESPIGHI (1879-1936)
Ballad of the Gnomes (1920) [15:02]
Three Botticelli Pictures (1927) [18:09]
Suite in G major for strings and organ (1902-05) [22:28]
Adagio with variations for cello and orchestra (1921) [13:08]
Leslie Pearson (organ)
Alexander Baillie (cello)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Geoffrey Simon
rec. Goldsmiths College, London, December 1990
CALA SACD CADS 4028 [69:04]

Not all recordings made in 1990 either call for or deserve SACD treatment. Indeed some SACD incarnations of older material have been less than valuable additions to the catalogues. This one however sounds first class even when played on an ordinary set up – spatial depth and a real sense of visceral power.

Geoffrey Simon made a series of fine Respighi recordings with the Philharmonia around this time. They responded well to him and he in turn extracted the marrow of nourishment from Respighi’s primary coloured bone. One might otherwise write off the gruesome ballet Ballad of the Gnomes but Simon cuts to the quick and brings out its profusion of Straussian rhetoric with vivid immediacy. This was the apparently the work’s first ever recording. Taken up and then dropped by Toscanini and Reiner we had to wait until its disc incarnation in this performance to realise how an overheated poem could bring out the rapacious in Respighi. The gaudy opening is followed by a suggestive dawn – fine contributions from the wind section principals – and impressionist hues. The colouristic richness one might expect from Respighi is here augmented by cinematic avidity, by a Dance of the Seven Veils delirium, rhythmic snap and a pulsating sense of drama. The poem on which it’s based, by Carlo Clausetti, is pure tosh - and hyper-sexualised tosh about dwarves into the bargain - but Respighi serves up a giddy backdrop for it.

The Trittico is the best-known work in the disc and those Botticelli Pictures offer moments of rampant pleasure once more. Simon is hardly the first conductor, and nor will he be the last, to lavish affection on the three. But he brings out real transparency in the textures that will give Respighi-lovers plenty of time to savour the aristocracy of some of the writing. So too the warmth of the string cantilevering in Veni, veni Emmanuel in the central panel – there’s some Stokowskian ardour here to be sure – with the more oriental writing emerging with elastic deliberation. Try the last of the three as well, The Birth of Venus and luxuriate in its rippling romance, with power held sufficiently in reserve to register the more telling in its climax. Not a piece to set before Simon Schama, unless one relishes the sight of salivating academic lips. 

A moment of fresh baroque invention follows in the shape of the Suite in G major. This was a famous Respighi forte and Simon doesn’t disappoint in evoking the unselfconscious lyricism embedded within. The Preludio is Bach-like (but all Respighi’s own invention) but the core is the Aria, a soulful song full of melting lyricism naturally unfettered by any virus of Historically Informed Practice. The organ is gently suggestive in the light Pastorale but ups the masculine ante in the noble Cantico. Respighi’s compatriot, the cellist Gaspar Cassado, was a fine exponent of the Adagio with variations for cello and orchestra. Here Alexander Baillie takes the honours. He’s not spotlit, as befits the piece, rather he’s subsumed more into the orchestral patina. It’s a rhapsodic and rather beautiful work, spun out with grace and a certain melancholy. It thrives on disc, as it’s mercilessly difficult to programme in concert, and this performance is worthy to sit beside the Cassado Vox Box on one’s shelves.

This disc is part bravura, part lyric painting - part Caravaggio, part Botticelli. With eloquent performances and that SACD sound Respighi adherents who missed its first appearance will want to add this to their shelves.

Jonathan Woolf







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