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Ottorino RESPIGHI (1879-1936)
Fontane di Roma (1914-16) [17:05]
Pini di Roma (1924) [23:07]
Il tramonto (1918) [15:46]*
Roman Festivals (1929) [24:27]
Christine Rice (mezzo)*
Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia/Antonio Pappano
rec. concert and sessions 11-23 January 2007, Sala Santa Cecilia, Auditorium Parco della Musica, Rome. DDD
Text of Il tramonto in German, Italian, English and French; liner notes in English, German and French.
EMI CLASSICS 3944292 [80:41]

From the Epping-born, London-based, American-educated Italian conductor, Antonio Pappano, comes one of the most exciting discs of the year. This set of Respighi's Roman tone poems is terrifically played and wonderfully evocative.

Pappano takes his time over the first movement of Fontane di Roma, coaxing a delicate dawn from the gossamer textures of Respighi's gauzy orchestration. The balancing of parts here is quietly ravishing, as simmering strings and whispering winds create tremendous expectation of the approaching sun. A glittering sunrise transports us to the Triton fountain, but Pappano keeps the orchestra light on its feet in this second movement. Some will find it underpowered, but Pappano is determined not to play his hand too early, allowing the Trevi to burst forward in climactic glory in the third movement. The brass playing here has a full-throated quality. The legato trumpet playing is lovely. Perhaps this Trevi has less raw power than some others on disc, but under Pappano the orchestral wash is more celebratory. The orchestra follow him to a man as he pushes the tempo, leading to a moment of sublime joy at the movement’s close, before the fourth movement marks a return to delicate impressionism by the Villa Medici Fountain at sunset. The orchestra's sweet-toned leader contributes a solo line of melting beauty here.

From first bar to last, this is a simply gorgeous performance and one which exhibits a suave elegance worthy of Debussy.

Pini di Roma opens with a snappy, boisterous picture of children playing beneath the Pines of the Villa Borghese. Pappano's tempo is very quick, within a hair of Ashkenazy's on his recent Exton disc. Perhaps the pace brings a little indistinctness to the trumpet articulation, but this is exhilarating stuff and the orchestra invests every phrase with character. Pappano coaxes delicate a delicate pianissimo to illustrate the catacombs of the second movement, building to a powerful statement of the Gregorian chant, which here is open-hearted rather than shrouded in religious mystery. Delicacy returns in the depiction of the Pines of the Janiculum, framing the song of a distant nightingale. The distant tramp of soldiers on the Appian Way at the beginning of the concluding picture is just that - distant. Pappano again focuses on atmosphere and does not allow his players to go all-out too early. He builds the crescendo almost to the very end. Only Reiner (RCA) does it better. Muti (EMI, now on Brilliant Classics) and Maazel (Decca or Sony) will overwhelm you more with spectacular weight of sound, but Pappano is just as musically satisfying in his own way.

The final tone poem still has its detractors today and many reviewers who praise the piece do so apologetically, as if they should be ashamed of themselves. Pappano certainly has no such qualms. He conducts this final tone poem with conviction. The picture of the Circus Maximus has more than a little bloody frenzy, especially as Pappano hits the accelerator at 3:55 before the final kill. The raucous party scene at Epiphany in the final movement also radiates tremendous energy and is a lot of fun. The trumpets about 2 minutes in have a Spanish flavour and the drunken trombone is a benign soul, like an embarrassing uncle at Christmas lunch. The internal movements once again display thoughtful phrasing and reveal the score’s inherent beauty. The musical snuff box quality Pappano conjures about 5 minutes into The Jubilee is quite lovely. There are more overwhelming accounts of this score, certainly. Not for Pappano the gaudy colours and violent passion of Ormandy (RCA) or Maazel (Sony). Style and clear textures are more his concern, and this performance has both.

I remain loyal to Reiner’s fabulous Pines – though I now prefer Pappano’s Fountains – and in my book Ormandy still cannot be beaten for ear-ravishingly gaudy vulgarity. Pappano, though, more than any other conductor reveals the delicate beauty in these scores. He does not sacrifice the power of their colourful scoring, though. In terms of sheer musical quality this disc is a match for any in the catalogue and will, I expect, be my "go-to" set of Respighi’s Roman Trilogy for some time to come.

The playing order of Respighi’s tone poems is always an issue in compiling a new set. While chronologically Fountains comes first, followed by Pines and then by Festivals, when played one after another on disc in that order the effect can be overwhelming. The Pines of the Appian Way which closes the second tone poem builds to such a rousing climax that to follow it immediately with the explosive cacophony of the Circus Maximus can lead to aural overload. Most conductors and labels solve this problem by placing the gentler Fountains between the two more raucous tone poems. Others, like López-Cobos (Telarc), circumvent the issue by issuing Festivals on a separate disc while others still, like Reiner, ignore Festivals altogether.

Pappano's and EMI's solution here is unique. Rather than juggling the chronology of the tone poems or splitting them across two discs, they generously offer a beautiful Respighi rarity by way of an interlude between triumph of the Appian Way and the frenzy of the circus.

Il tramonto, a setting of Shelley’s poem The Sunset for mezzo-soprano and strings, demonstrates Respighi’s consummate skill in crafting music to suit a text. It opens with a gush of gorgeous string tone, glowingly Mediterranean in feel, but betraying in its harmonic language an inflection of Wagner and Richard Strauss. Christine Rice is a fresh-voiced soloist and moves through the remembered rapture and tragedy of Shelley's verse with warmth and sensitivity. There is some lovely detail in this score. The solo violin decoration that is draped lightly across Rice's vocal line about 3:30 in is ear-catching and Respighi surprises with moments of chamber music-like delicacy between passages of full bodied strings and bold chords. This piece was entirely new to me and is so utterly beguiling that I had to play it through a few times in succession when I first auditioned this disc.

EMI's recording is quite spectacular and I have no complaints about the orchestra. They know this music inside out, having premiered the first two tone poems and given the first European performance of the third. Their commitment here is total. It is not clear to what extent these performances are "live", but the music making has a consistently high energy level and any audience presence is mercifully inaudible.

With over 80 minutes of incredible music-making, Pappano and EMI deserve to do very well with this release.

Tim Perry

Respighi website


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