Ottorino RESPIGHI (1879-1936)
Ancient Dances and Airs for Lute
Ancient Dances and Airs for Lute, Suite No. 1, for orchestra (1917) [16:32]
Ancient Dances and Airs for Lute, Suite No. 2, for chamber orchestra (1924) [19:15]
Ancient Dances and Airs for Lute, Suite No. 3, for strings (1932) [18:46]
The Birds (1927) [19:08]
Brazilian Impressions (1928) [19:08]
Fountains of Rome (1916) [15:30]
Pines of Rome (1924) [19:20]
Philharmonia Hungarica/Antal Dorati (Ancient Airs and Dances)
London Symphony Orchestra/Antal Dorati (The Birds, Brazilian Impressions)
Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra/Antal Dorati (Fountains of Rome, Pines of Rome)
rec. June 1958 Großer Saal, Konzerthaus, Vienna, Austria (Ancient Airs and Dances); July 1957 Watford Town Hall, Hertfordshire, UK (The Birds, Brazilian Impressions); April 1960, Northrop Auditorium, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, USA (Fountains of Rome, Pines of Rome)
NEWTON CLASSICS 8802048 [54:34 + 73:05]

It is good that the Newton Classics label is reissuing classic recordings from the extensive back catalogue of EMI, Decca, DG and Mercury. It’s a while since I heard the orchestral scores of Respighi and I was delighted to have this double disc set from Newton Classics that contains the more famous works from his legacy. Of his best known scores only the Church Windows, Three Botticelli Pictures and Roman Festivals are not included. If one looks deeper into Respighi’s works list there are some splendid scores to be discovered such as the Suite for strings and organIn the Antique Style’, The Ballad of the Gnomes, Adagio with Variations for Cello and Orchestra, Concerto Gregoriano for violin and orchestra, Quartetto dorico and the Violin Sonata in B minor.

On the first disc the three suites of Ancient Dances and Airs in this Dorati recording has achieved legendary status such is the quality of the playing. I have this very same 1958 Vienna Konzerthaus performance on a quite superbly transferred 2004 re-issue in Super Audio CD, 3 channel stereo on Mercury Living Presence 470 637-2.

Respighi was fascinated by his musical heritage and his suites of the Ancient Dances and Airs are his arrangements of pieces for lute from Italian and French Renaissance and early Baroque composers. The majority of the music was taken from a collection of lute music published by the Italian musicologist Oscar Chilesotti. Respighi’s contrasts of brilliant orchestral colours, by turns robust and delicately transparent are extremely agreeable. The Philharmonia Hungarica under their Maestro Dorati was playing at an impressive peak. There is often a courtly and elegant feel to this music especially in the opening episodes of each of the suites: Ballett, Il Conte Orlando; Laura soave and Italiana. From suite one with its pizzicato introduction Villanella there is a quasi-religious feel to the gentle writing. The vivacious and fleet-footed Passo mezzo e mascherada is genial and carefree. From suite two the weighty Bergamasca is briskly taken. With its memorable folk-like melody the central section is lightly textured with an attractive harpsichord part. Suite three has a delightful mix of shiftily shifting moods ranging from merriment and dance to the forceful and rhythmic to music of a weary mournful tread.

Disc two offers four of Respighi’s most enduringly popular scores upon which his reputation as composer is predominantly based. For these recordings Dorati uses two separate orchestras. The earliest performances, The Birds and Brazilian Impressions were recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1957 at Watford Town Hall. Almost three years later the Fountains of Rome and Pines of Rome were recorded with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra in 1960 at the University of Minnesota.

The justly popular suite for small orchestra The Birds from 1927 is Respighi’s attempt at transcribing birdsong into musical notation. Each of the five pieces is based on melodies from the seventeenth and eighteenth century by four European composers principally the Italian, Pasquini. The Prelude deploys Pasquini’s memorable and much admired melody. In the remaining pieces The dove, The hen, The nightingale and The cuckoo can be found many fine examples of Respighi’s cheerful and witty writing. At times in The cuckoo I was reminded of Copland’s prairie music of the great outdoors.

From 1928 Brazilian Impressions is a three movement orchestral suite based on popular folk melodies that Respighi had heard in Brazil. The opening score Tropical Night has a convincing sultry nocturnal feel laced with hints of the tango. Following a visit to a snake farm the central movement Butantan is a successful and suitably edgy depiction of a snakes slithering through the undergrowth. Concluding the score is the colourful and pleasing Song and Dance based on folk music heard at a carnival.

In both suites The Birds and Brazilian Impressions the London Symphony Orchestra play well but do not quite deliver the necessary polish and controlled exuberance to allow the music to be heard at its best.

Finally we have Respighi’s two most famous scores: the highly descriptive symphonic poems the Fountains of Rome and Pines of Rome. These cemented his international reputation. From 1916 the Fountains of Rome is a musical depiction of his inspirations from four Roman fountains. A languid scene, The Valle Giulia Fountain at Dawn has a distinctly bucolic feel. Buoyant and excitable, The Triton Fountain in the Morning conveys a convincing impression of water spouts. With heavier textures the Trevi Fountain at Mid-day commences with solemnity that develops into euphoria. With notable brass contributions the music represents a scene of Neptune’s chariot pulled by seahorses. At times I was reminded of film scores to classic Hollywood epics of the silver screen. The Villa Medici fountain at Sunset provides a pastoral conclusion with notable woodwind contributions. Tender and affectionately expressive playing leads onwards to a distant tolling bell heralding the ebb of the music.

Pines of Rome a tone poem for large orchestra, is again cast in four movements: in effect a series of nature impressions. The Pines of the Villa Borghese represents excitable and energetic children at play in the pine groves. In this colourful and thrilling score I was strongly reminded of music that might accompany a swashbuckling movie romp with Errol Flynn. I did wonder if Korngold knew this piece. A shadows and mystery inhabit the movement Pines near a Catacomb. Again that strong sense of an epic Hollywood ‘sword and sandal’ film score is evident. Strongly impressionist in disposition The Pines of the Janiculum is lush and tender. A recording of a Nightingale can be heard over tremolo strings. So much for twentieth century Avant-garde composers writing music for orchestra and tape. A thrilling sense of foreboding fills the air in The Pines of the Appian Way with a distinct Middle Eastern flavour suffusing the writing. It feels as if a marching army can be heard approaching in the distance, coming closer and closer, resulting in a thunderous climax.

On these final two scores Dorati conducts the Minneapolis Symphony. Although the performance is more than acceptable these scores would have benefited from a higher calibre of playing than that provided by the Minneapolis Orchestra.

This Newton Classics release is almost perfect for anyone wanting a double set of Respighi’s best known scores. In addition the super budget price makes this a real bargain.

Michael Cookson

Masterwork Index: Roman trilogy

Almost perfect for anyone wanting a double set of Respighi’s best known scores. In addition the super budget price makes this a real bargain.