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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. 19-22 December 1990, Goldsmiths College, London.
CALA CADS 4028 [69:04]

The series of Respighi recordings which Geoffrey Simon made with the Philharmonia Orchestra some fifteen years ago has rightly attracted a good deal of praise and it is a pleasure to welcome this SACD reissue of one of them. I haven’t, unfortunately, heard this reissue on an SACD system, but can report myself thoroughly impressed with the sound produced when played back on a conventional system – vivid and powerful, with a strong sense of space, in which individual instruments are sometimes very effectively highlighted, but not at the cost of the larger orchestral sound.

The earliest work here is the Suite for Strings and Organ, a piece of romanticised Baroque which has real charm. The interplay of modern strings and Bach-like organ in the Preludio will be a little over-sweet for some tastes and would probably be bad for the musical digestion if indulged in too often; the Aria which follows is ravishingly lovely, a model of sensual sobriety and emotional yearning – the music requires such oxymorons. The third movement, marked Pastorale, creates an exquisite blend of gentle organ and luminous strings – the orchestral playing and the recording are heard at something like their best here; in the final movement, Cantico, stately opening and closing passages frame a more reflective central section. The whole work is characterised both by elegance and by majesty, by lyricism and by clarity of structure. Respighi’s particular mastery in the creation of works which allude to, and to some degree imitate, earlier musical idioms without ever being enslaved to them, works which treat older music forms and languages with both creative freedom and deep respect, can already be heard and enjoyed in this relatively early and little-known work.

The Adagio with Variations for Cello and Orchestra had its origins at much the same time as the Suite, as a piece for cello and piano, which Respighi revised and orchestrated in 1921, at the suggestion of the Bolognese cellist, composer and art collector, Antonio Certani. Indeed it is based on a theme by Certani – see John France’s review of the Naxos recording of the cello and piano version. It is a beautiful, melancholy adagio, a rhapsody which avoid excess and retains graceful balance. Alexander Baillie plays it with quiet, undemonstrative subtlety, and Simon extracts some beautiful sounds from the orchestra. As with the Suite for Strings and Organ, one wonders why we don’t hear it more often.

The piece which is given most prominent billing on the CD cover, the Ballad of the Gnomes (the Italian title is Ballata delle gnomidi – and ‘ballata’ might as readily be translated as ‘Dance’ rather than ‘Ballad’) was written at much the same time as the more famous tone poems The Fountains of Rome (1918) and The Pines of Rome (1925). It was first performed in Rome in April 1920; both Toscanini and Reiner conducted later performances of the piece, though it was largely forgotten after that, until Geoffrey Simon played it in 1992 with the Sacramento Orchestra. It is a response to a strange – indeed perverse – poem by Carlo Clausetti (1869-1943), better known as the director of Ricordi - and a composer himself - rather than as a poet. His poem ‘The Ballad of the Gnomes’, of which a free translation - but not the original Italian - is provided in the booklet, is a rather disturbing piece which (obliquely) narrates a tale in which two female gnomes pick on a hapless male as part of some kind of ritual and drag him to a darkened bedroom for some sort of act of sexual predation, in the course of which he dies with a “ghastly scream”. Other gnomes wait outside, as his scream is succeeded by silence; at dawn the two she-gnomes carry his bloodstained corpse to a cliff above the sea and throw it over, amidst prayers which, we are told, sound more like curses. There follows a frenzied dance, led by the two murderers, a kind of Witches Sabbath. Such a scenario, it need hardly be said, offers Respighi plenty of musical scope for lavish orchestral effects and some driving rhythms. I’m not sure that the music ever amounts to much more than an orchestral showpiece … and not an especially glamorous one. There are some striking passages, but the whole lacks musical coherence; the supposedly abandoned dance which closes it sounds pretty tame alongside, say, The Rite of Spring or The Miraculous Mandarin. Useful as it is to have a vividly played and recorded performance available - this was a première recording - this strikes me as actually the least satisfying piece of music on the CD.

More familiar than any of their companions on the CD, the three short pieces which make up the Trittico boticelliano, the latest works on the disc, surely capture much more of Respighi’s natural sensibility. There is a delightful clarity to the orchestral textures in these compositions for chamber orchestra – and to their loving performance here. These are utterly delightful pieces, delicate and subtle, quite without exaggeration or empty rhetoric, beautiful examples of the art of musical ekphrasis. They are ravishing responses to the exquisite visual textures of three great paintings by Botticelli – La Primavera, L’adorazione dei Magi and La nascita de Venere; all now in the Uffizi in Florence. Botticelli’s pictures are, if truth be told, much more than merely exquisite; each of them is a work of serious religious and philosophical thought, full of complex iconographical significance. Respighi’s music makes no attempt to respond to that dimension of the paintings, preferring to concentrate on their sheer fineness of detail and to the finding of aural equivalents for their elusive colour-harmonies. It would be churlish, though, in the face of such musical beauty, to insist that finally the music sells the paintings short. Perhaps that is what inevitably happens when great works of art are translated from one medium to another? In any case, these are lovely performances, quite wonderfully well recorded.

Glyn Pursglove 

see also Review by Jonathan Woolf




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