RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Ottorino RESPIGHI (1879-1936)
Fontane di Roma (1916) [16:36]
Pini di Roma (1924) [21:42]
Feste Romane (1929) [24:27]
São Paolo Symphony Orchestra/John Neschling
rec. February 2008, Sala São Paolo, Brazil
I was impressed a while ago by the São Paolo Symphony Orchestra in their Across the Pyrenees recording with Sharon Bezaly. Having already heard good things about this ‘Roman Trilogy’ disc, I was confident of not having to write bad words about it, even in a market which is filled with a wealth of alternatives for these popular works.
Part of the thrill with this recording is having the full colourful splendour of Respighi’s scores in SACD sound. With superb playing and Bis’s reliably wonderful engineering you can expect to be blown out of your seat at numerous moments. Fans of films scores of the epic variety can find the wellspring of vast swathes of cinematic music at source with this collection, almost every effect in these scores having been ‘nicked’ at one time or another. With a sumptuous sound-spectacle assured, we can settle down and see if the performances stand up to this almost larger-than-life scrutiny.
Beginning with the Fontane di Roma, you are immediately impressed with the quality of the solo playing in the winds, each little touch from the peripheral instruments, percussion, harp – those little horn-calls and the like, beautifully present and accurately placed in terms of balance and perspective. Powerful horns and a sense of infinite depths of sound generate theatrical colour and light. The second section, The Triton Fountain, is followed by a Strauss ‘Alpine Symphony’ in miniature with the Trevi Fountain, magnificent organ and all. Succulent strings and sparkling orchestration in the Medici Fountain finish off this masterful and, to my ears as good as flawless rendition.
The Pines of Rome opens with a rowdy scene of playful children, dizzying us with energetic games and noise. Neschling and his band pull out all the stops, so that the plunge into the catacombs is a shock of gloom – maximum contrast, and very effective too. Restraint suffuses the solo instruments as they rise above the strings, expressive but movingly respectful. The climax which rises from those depths is truly, hair-raisingly massive. The Pine-Trees of the Janiculum is one of my favourite orchestral moments, and I can remember being fascinated by those parallel harmonies and poly-tonal moments as well as that recorded birdsong from childhood. The warm expressiveness of the strings is gorgeous here, and the clarinet and other solos can’t fail with such a marvellous carpet on which to walk. The nightingale we get here is a bit of a busy fellow and part of something of an avian crowd, but the effect is nice enough if perhaps lacking that last ounce of Max Ernst surrealist atmosphere. The sense of the ‘unending footsteps’ on the Appian Way is palpable in this recording, the low piano notes providing a rich percussive thrum to the rhythmic drive of the movement. Oh yes, the Romans are coming, you can be sure of that, and in this recording you’ll not only be overawed by their huge numbers and fantastic sense of discipline, but will also be blinded by the sunlight gleaming from freshly polished armour and weapons. This is unstoppable ceremonial and actual power embodied in sound, and only wonderfully inspiring if you happen to be on the right side.
John Neschling’s performance of this ‘Roman Trilogy’ has to compete with a fairly recent EMI recording conducted by Antonio Pappano, which also manages to offer the less frequently heard Il tramonto. This was given Recording of the Month status by Tim Perry, but has been less well received in some quarters. My own reference is the famous 1958/61 Philadelphia Orchestra recording with Eugene Ormandy, available on Sony Essential Classics. This still sounds remarkably good for its age, and there is no doubting Ormandy’s passionate response to Respighi’s music. There are some wonderfully atmospheric moments in this recording which have become part of my aural DNA, as I am sure they have for many other people, but there is no doubting the São Paolo’s qualities in terms of technical proficiency – beating the vintage recording in terms of intonation if nothing else.
Digital SACD recording is also the major benefit, but the South American sense of swing in vital moments of the Feste romane creates a sense of Mediterranean joy and sunlit abandon which even Ormandy couldn’t manage. I was never quite so keen on this piece, but have to admit to having been entirely converted with this new recording. Neschling gets every ounce of oomph out of Respighi’s over-the-top score and orchestration, and finds and highlights themes, lets trombones rip through their glissandi, and pitches the melodramatic impact of that killer first movement exactly right. Having had the fear of imminent demise put into us, the chilling atmosphere of trudging pilgrims makes us awestruck with religious piety. There is a transformation into that ‘hymn of praise’ which you can almost physically sense turning the corner into “the holy city, Rome! Rome!” At last the fun can start, and The October Festival allows the São Paolo players to start showing us how they can get into that groove of sleazy sumptuousness which is irresistibly southern. The mandolin solo kicks in at 4:17: another unforgettable master-stroke from Respighi the brilliant orchestrator, but let’s also not forget the stunning violin solos from orchestral leader Cláudio Cruz. The final Epiphany is the best I’ve heard either on record or in the concert hall, and if it doesn’t have you dancing in one way or another then I fear a medical check-up may be required. The São Paolo orchestra manages both energetic virtuosity and magnificent wit, and this movement is quite literally a blast.
So, as you may have gathered, I am quite enthusiastic about this recording of Respighi’s ‘Roman Trilogy’. As far as I’m concerned it has everything, and in having everything can stand against all comers in its field. Bravo!
SACD or download from eclassical.com (mp3, lossless and 24-bit)
This is the Download of the Month in my February 2011 Download Roundup, but it deserves a separate review in its own right.
The accolade is as much for the eclassical download website as for this recording. This was my introduction to the site and it marks an auspicious beginning. It offers BIS, Signum, Hänssler, HNH and Proprius recordings in full bit-rate mp3 and 16-bit and 24-bit lossless flac, all at a very reasonable price. Where other sites have a standard charge, often more expensive for lossless, or charge by the track, eclassical charges by the second. Like Hyperion, who reduce their charge slightly for shorter recordings, but without the per-second finesse of eclassical, flac and mp3 come at the same price, for this site stated in US dollars. This Respighi recording costs $7.52 ($11.28 for 24-bit), which works out very reasonably by comparison with classicsonline.com who charge £7.99 for 320k mp3 BIS downloads and Passionato.com, who charge £7.99 and £9.99 for 320k mp3 and lossless respectively. Most eclassical downloads, like this one, come with a pdf booklet.
The lossless flac download of the Respighi Trilogy is excellent and the performances are every bit as fine as Dominy Clements states in his review above – a well-deserved Recording of the Month. Don’t forget that Pappano’s very fine EMI recording adds Il Tramonto to the Trilogy (394429-2: Download of the Month in October 2009 Download Roundup. See also Tim Perry’s 2007 review). Both versions offer plenty of zest where appropriate – and it often is appropriate in Respighi’s cinematic music – but there are more delicate moments and both Pappano and Neschling are excellent at finding and responding to these. I mentioned Pappano’s skill in holding his forces in abeyance until the right moment, a skill which Neschling also demonstrates, in Pini del Gianicolo, for example, and in the opening of Pini della Via Appia before the legionaries come marching in with their hob-nail boots. Even Feste Romane sounds less than usual to be full of mere sound and fury. Neither Neschling nor Pappano works with a big-name orchestra, but both the Santa Cecilia and the São Paolo orchestras can look their better-known fellows in the eye on the basis of these recordings.
If you already have Il Tramonto – perhaps in Tamás Vasary’s Chandos recording which I recommended in the November 2008 Download Roundup (CHAN8193), coupled with the charming Botticelli Pictures and even more charming The Birds – bear in mind that the eclassical download price takes the shorter playing time into account: you get what you pay for, which is much better than eMusic’s system of charging per track. Recordings with lots of short tracks work out more expensive than the parent CD at eMusic, sometimes hugely more expensive, whereas Mahler and Bruckner symphonies are very inexpensive. The eclassical system irons out all those anomalies and the mp3s are all at the optimum 320kb/s.
I recently praised the São Paolo Orchestra in downloads of three BIS CDs of the Villa-Lobos Chôros – see review. I had to rely for expediency on downloads from eMusic and the Naxos Classical Library in compiling that review. If I had had access to eclassical then, that would have been my preferred source:
· Volume 1 (BIS-CD-1440) here ($9.25 at the time of writing)
· Volume 2 (BIS-CD-1450) here ($9.58 at the time of writing)
· Volume 3 (BIS-CD-1520) here ($9.42 at the time of writing)
Additionally the BIS recording of Villa-Lobos’s exuberant Floresta do Amazonas is available here ($9.35 at the time of writing).