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Ottorino RESPIGHI (1879-1936)
Vetrate di chiesa (Church Windows), P150 (1927)
I. La fuga in Egitto (The Flight into Egypt) [5:56]
II. San Michele Arcangelo (St Michael the Archangel) [5:21]
III. Il Mattutino di Santa Chiara (The Matins of St Clare) [5:04]
IV. San Gregorio Magno (St Gregory the Great) [8:35]
Impressioni brasiliane (Brazilian Impressions), P153 (1928)
I. Notte tropicale (Tropical Night) [10:26]
II. Butantan [4:27]
III. Canzone e Danza (Song and Dance) [4:11]
Rossiniana: Suite for Orchestra, P148 (1925)
I. Capri e Taormina [5:07]
II. Lamento [6:25]
III. Intermezzo [2:16]
IV. Tarantella, ‘Puro Sangue’ [7:14]
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta
rec. 20-21 March 2006, Kleinhans Music Hall, Buffalo, New York, USA
NAXOS 8.557711 [65:02]

 


Respighi’s so-called Roman trilogy – Pini di Roma, Fontane di Roma and Feste Romane – are probably his best known and most played works; deservedly so, for they are brilliant orchestral showpieces, full of vigour and hot-blooded Mediterranean sentiment. Yet still so many of the composer’s other works don’t get an outing, so full marks to Naxos for their ongoing Respighi survey.

Recordings of Church Windows and Brazilian Impressions aren’t that plentiful either, but Geoffrey Simon and the Philharmonia taped spectacular accounts of these two works for Chandos back in 1984 (CHAN 8317). A quarter century later these are still remarkable performances, far superior to Ashkenazy’s recent Exton SACD in terms of interpretation and sound.

Church Windows began life as Tre preludi sopra melodie gregoriane (‘Three Piano Preludes on Gregorian Melodies’) published in 1922. Three years later Respighi decided to orchestrate them and add a fourth to make a symphonic suite. Curiously the descriptive ‘programme’ was only added afterwards, with the help of the composer’s friend Claudio Guastalla. The first movement – The Flight into Egypt – could have been lifted from the Pines of Rome, so unmistakable is Respighi’s musical fingerprint. There really is a sense of a lonely caravan making its way slowly across a barren landscape – a Middle Eastern Bydlo, perhaps – and the Buffalonians essay the gentle opening with commendable clarity and grace. That said, as the movement progresses one might wish for rather more ardour in those surging tunes.

Make no mistake the American band play seductively enough and they are well recorded to boot, but Simon adds impetus and electricity to the music without sacrificing detail or polish. The bite of the Philharmonia strings is particularly invigorating compared with the rather too elegant, moulded phrasing of the Buffalonians, although the latter do play the serene final bars with great feeling.

Nothing quiet about the heavenly battle that erupts in St Michael the Archangel, with its blazing brass and thundering organ. The Naxos sound is marvellously weighty here – not always the case with recordings from this source – and the players really do let their hair down for once. The quieter horns and arpeggiated strings are well caught, while at the other extreme Satan’s banishment from Heaven – a triple forte tam-tam crash – produces a real frisson of excitement. By contrast the Philharmonia bring a febrile quality to the music, but Simon manages to control the temperature and keep it all from boiling over into bombast. That said, honours seem more evenly divided this time round, both bands playing with great precision and gusto.

The two performances are also well matched in the quieter, more contemplative music of The Matins of St Clare. If anything the Americans have the edge in terms of beauty and elegance of phrasing (just listen to that plainchant melody at 2:40, embellished by the harps). Very atmospheric indeed.

Equally impressive is the sheer weight and breadth of sound that Falletta coaxes from her orchestra in St Gregory the Great. There is pontifical grandeur aplenty and the lower strings in particular underpin the solemn proceedings with real authority. Arguably the Philharmonia maintain a greater sense of clarity and focus in the build up to the ecstatic ‘Alleluias’ of the finale, but their trans-Atlantic rivals are every bit as thrilling when it comes to that great climax.

Brazilian Impressions is not as high octane as Church Windows but it does boast some delightful music. Respighi and his wife embarked on a recital tour of Brazil in 1927 and the composer promised to provide a ‘Brazilian suite’ for their return visit in 1928. Pressure of work meant he could only produce three movements but the result is surprisingly genial music that understates rather than overplays the South American connection. This is particularly true of the opening nocturne, Tropical Night, which unfolds with Debussian languor. The Buffalo band really rise to the occasion here, with elegant and atmospheric playing, the music delectably sprung.

And while Simon and the Philharmonia generally articulate rhythms more clearly Falletta manages to make Butantan, a musical depiction of a Brazilian reptile farm, sound wonderfully sinuous. True, the British players come even closer to the composer’s marking of strisciante (‘slitheringly’) but to be honest there’s not much to separate the two performances. That said, the more flexible Philharmonia do have the edge in Song and Dance, where they shape and project rhythms with greater felicity.

It’s pretty much even at this point but then the Naxos recording pulls ahead with a refreshing performance of the orchestral suite Rossiniana. Transcribed from Rossini’s Les Riens (‘Trifles’), this four-movement work is lighter on its feet than either of the other pieces on the disc. Capri e Taormina combines the siciliana and barcarola to great effect, with some marvellous pizzicato playing from the strings and well-blended contributions from the brass. It is sunny music, full of warmth and local colour, yet it retains a certain grace and elegance throughout.

By contrast the gong-tormented Lamento is altogether darker, more brooding, with some characterful playing from the woodwinds. The martial bass drum is superbly dramatic, as is the sneering brass, but it is Falletta’s instinctive feel for the ebb and flow of this movement that really stands out here.

The third movement, a stately Intermezzo, has a surprisingly jaunty little melody coursing through it, while in the Tarantella – not as abandoned as one might expect – the orchestra really sound as if they are enjoying themselves, with spirited playing from all quarters. As always, one is astonished by Respighi’s gift for instrumental colour but it’s Falletta who is most deserving of praise here, maintaining a firm grip on the music while still allowing it to whirl and dance.

This collection doesn’t displace the Simon/Philharmonia in my affections but it comes close, very close. What will probably tip the balance for most buyers is the budget price and the ‘extras’ in the form of Rossiniana. So, a worthy addition to the Naxos Respighi project but, most important, an impressive and entertaining disc as well.

Dan Morgan 

 

 

 


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