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Ottorino RESPIGHI (1879-1936)
Il Tramonto (The Sunset) (1918) [15:52]
String Quartet in D minor (1909) [30:21]
Quartetto Dorico (1924) [20:47]
Stella Doufexis (mezzo); New Hellenic Quartet: Georgios Demertzis (violin); Dinitrios Vhandrakis (violin); Chara Sira (viola); Apostolos Chandrakis (cello)
rec. Länna Church, Sweden, December 2003. DDD
BIS CD-1454 [68:04]

Mathew Arnold observed: “It always seems to me that the right sphere for Shelley’s genius was the sphere of music, not of poetry”. Certainly, music was both a major influence on Shelley’s work, and a frequent subject of that poetry. In turn, his work has repeatedly attracted the attention of composers. Amongst English composers there are fine settings by, amongst many others, Geoffrey Bush, Roger Quilter, Vaughan Williams, Granville Bantock, Delius and Tippett; a less expected English setting can be found (‘Adonais’) on the B-side of The Cure’s 1996 single ‘The 13th’!  Amongst modern American composers, there are intriguing settings by David Diamond and Ned Rorem. The number of settings, indeed, is such as to justify the publication in 1974 of Burton R. Pollin’s Music for Shelley’s Poetry: an annotated bibliography of musical settings of Shelley’s Poetry (New York, Da Capo Press).

Of immediate relevance to this particular CD, Italian composers attracted to Shelley’s work include Giorgio Ghedini, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco – and Ottorino Respighi. Respighi set several poems by Shelley, in Italian translations. Amongst them is the gorgeous Il Tramonto, which sets a translation by Roberto Ascoli of Shelley’s early poem ‘The Sunset’ (written in 1816). A minor masterpiece which belongs in a sound-world compounded of, say, Mahler and Zemlinsky, Strauss and Puccini, Respighi’s music beautifully complements and articulates Shelley’s poem of love and death, of “gentleness and patience and sad smiles” and “wisdom-working grief”, of “passionless calm and silence unreproved”. The vocal line is exquisitely handled by Stella Doufexis, her voice at times floating raptly where “lines of gold / Hung on the ashen clouds” and at times unbearably pained in evocation of the bereaved woman’s death-in-life. There are other fine recordings, including performances by Magdalena Kozena with the Henschel Quartet (Deutsche Grammophon 4715812) and Anne Sofie von Otter with the Brodsky Quartet (Vanguard Classics 99216). Kozena’s performance is part of a recital of songs by Ravel, Shostakovich, Schuloff and Britten; von Otter’s performance is part of an all Respighi programme along with the Quartet in D major and the Quartetto Dorico. Doufexis and the New Hellenic Quartet are not seriously disadvantaged by comparison with such big names – this is a dignified, moving performance, which refuses excessive melodrama.
Respighi played both violin and viola. While studying with Rimsky-Korsakov he played viola in the orchestra of the Imperial Opera in St. Petersburg; in Italy played viola in the Mugellini Quartet from 1903-1908. Not surprisingly, his writing for string quartet is clearly founded in secure knowledge of instrumental possibilities. The Quartet in D minor is perhaps not especially individual in idiom, but is thoroughly well made. The opening allegro is full of rich harmonies and warm humanity; the second movement – marked lentamente con tristezza – is steeped in romantic yearning, with some long melancholy melodic lines; the third movement is neatly made, a model of balance, with some attractively lyrical episodes; the finale sparking with controlled energy. A satisfying piece which deserves to be heard more often.
The Quartetto Dorico – written some fifteen years later – is, however, an altogether more distinctive work. It was written at about the time when Respighi – in part because of the influence of his wife, the singer and composer Elsa Olivieri-Sangiacomo – was reshaping his musical thought in the light of his study of Gregorian chant – an interest also reflected in such compositions as the Concerto gregoriano (1921) and the Concerto in modo misolidio (1925). The quartet is written as a single long movement, though made up of clearly distinct sections. There are passages indebted to folk materials; there are alternations between contrapuntal and homophonic writing; there is much fine writing for the viola, in particular. There is suggestion of subdued passion in much of the writing, a sense of passion reflected upon and contained, its sources and outcomes only hinted at in the insistent returns to a single theme. The whole has a strange beauty, simultaneously – somehow – both lush and austere.
In both quartets the New Hellenic Quartet play with commitment, intelligence and instrumental assurance. Their work resonates with honesty and freshness. The singing of Stella Doufexis is of a similarly high standard – any listener wanting to explore Respighi beyond the familiar orchestral works could do a great deal worse than start here.
Glyn Pursglove



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