If you want the most opulently recorded and
most exciting version of Respighi’s best known poems and suites,
you are unlikely to turn to a disc nearly fifty years old first.
If, on the other hand, you consider that contrary to received
wisdom they are in fact works of considerable imagination and
musical invention - real music in fact rather than a mere succession
of spectacular effects - these performances are well worth hearing.
The sound is far from unacceptable even by modern standards, and
the performances are in every way excellent. Balance, phrasing
and tempi are all beautifully controlled. The notorious recorded
nightingale at the end of the Pines of the Janiculum
given a distant balance so that the listener could almost imagine
that the bird is imagined, not real. It is more the dream of birdsong
than a real bird, and for once the effect sounds poetic rather
than merely quaint. The louder passages of the Pines of the
are also effective, menacing and all the more so
for being slightly understated. Respighi could certainly be coarse
or corny at times – I still cannot take Feste Romane
but performances like these make it clear that The Fountains
and The Pines
are works of real imagination and beauty.
La Boutique Fantasque
was written for Diaghilev’s London ballet season in 1919. Ansermet conducted both the first performance and this recording. Although no mention of it is made in the booklet the latter makes numerous cuts to the score of the ballet as originally published. For the most part these are of the connecting passages between movements and none of the cuts are any great loss; possibly they are even a gain when listening at home. One oddity is that the penultimate bar of the whole work is cut. This makes no difference to the musical sense but does leave one wondering why it was done. Not to save time, clearly, so perhaps it means that Ansermet was maintaining a tradition started in the original performances. I have no idea, and it is a matter of no musical importance, but it does usefully remind the listener that this is a performance led by one of the work’s creators, and that this recording is all the more valuable for this link with its tradition. It is much more than that, with well judged tempi and a delightful understanding of the way in which the music, as arranged by Respighi, constantly defeats our musical expectations and is full of surprises. I first got to know the work in Arthur Fiedler’s Boston Pops version, but I am very happy to exchange that somewhat technicolour version for Ansermet’s subtler approach.
Given its age it is not surprising that the orchestra in the ballet does sound a little underpowered at times, and the internal balance is at times unclear and the sound somewhat congested in parts. In general the London Symphony Orchestra at that date do not sound by any means obviously superior to Ansermet’s usual Suisse Romande, but there are no serious weaknesses in this respect, and it is an enjoyable and, given Ansermet’s early connection with the work, valuable recording. As a whole this is yet another really worthwhile resurrection of Ansermet’s recordings from Eloquence.