Ottorino RESPIGHI (1879-1936)
Aria for strings P.32 (transcribed by Di Vittorio) (1901) [5:51], Violin Concerto in A major P.49 (revised and completed by Di Vittorio) (1903) [21:08], Suite for Strings P.41 (revised by Di Vittorio) (1902) [27:33], Rossiniana: Suite for orchestra P.148 [23:01]
Laura Marzadori (violin)
Chamber Orchestra of New York “Ottorini Respighi”/Salvatore Di Vittorio
rec. 15-16 February, 24-25 May 2010, Concert Hall of Adelphi University Performing Arts Center, Long Island, New York USA
NAXOS 8.572332 [77:32]

It’s difficult to escape the idea that the bottom of the barrel is being scraped. The “Aria for strings” is described as a “world première recording”, but proves to be so only in this form. This early piece was later gathered into the Suite for Strings and Organ. We are told that Di Vittorio’s “transcription” is “based on the original manuscript and hand-written parts”. But, if these latter have been faithfully reproduced with a minimum of essential tidying for practical performance purposes, I call this “editing”. “Transcription” implies a more radical, even creative intervention, so what has Di Vittorio actually done? Leaving this aside, we have an agreeable piece of romanticized baroque. Di Vittorio gives it plenty of romantic rubato but it seems to cry out for lush Stokowski-style strings. Or else, as Respighi seemed to realize, the presence of an underpinning organ to give it a certain individuality.

The other “world première”, the Violin Concerto, is not to be confused with the later violin concertos, “Concerto all’antica” (1908) and “Concerto gregoriano” (1921), which occasionally crop up. Again, there is some ambiguity in the notes. We read that “Respighi had completed the first two movements and begun the third movement in piano reduction, with only a few measures orchestrated”. This, if I am not being more than usually obtuse, could mean that two movements plus the beginning of a third were composed in piano reduction, and a few measures of one of them orchestrated, or it could mean that the first two movements were completed, orchestration included, and the finale was begun in piano reduction and just a few bars of it orchestrated. In the Italian version of the notes, which claim to be translated from the English, we read that “In the original manuscript of this concerto, Respighi had completed the first two movements and had put his hand to the third movement only in its piano reduction, orchestrating its first bars”. This seems to allow the possibility that the third movement, in its piano reduction, was actually complete. I won’t go into all the discrepancies between the English and Italian versions of the notes as to what Di Vittorio has done, or may have done, to complete the work. I will only point out that, according to the English version, “Respighi’s conclusion to the first movement foreshadows the master’s later colourful orchestration of arguably his greatest work, Pines of Rome.” In Italian this comes out as “the first movement [i.e. all of it] is, in the light of the composer’s development, a clear foreshadowing of that mastery of orchestral colours which – with trills and fanfares – we find in his most famous work, Pini di Roma”. Rather like the difference between editing and transcribing.

Taking the music on its own terms, the first movement has an engaging freshness, with carolling wind at the beginning sounding a little like Nielsen – not that Respighi could have known that in 1903. I must say the music sounds more individual in the purely orchestral passages than when the violin enters. Since Di Vittorio has apparently “enhanced” the orchestration, the individuality may be his rather than Respighi’s. The slow movement is considerably the longest, a mainly rapt meditation with an atmosphere that may sound slightly Celtic, at least to British ears. The finale, however you interpret the liner notes, does not convince as pure Respighi. It sounds more like the sort of post-modern, neo-romantic, neo-diatonic manner which has become popular in recent years. It also sounds bombastic and vulgar in a way that the previous two movements do not. However, since Respighi could be both of these things at times, this in itself does not disqualify it as a plausible reconstruction of Respighi’s original intentions. Those more convinced by its Respighian credentials than I am must surely admit, though, that it sounds like Respighi at his worst. Possibly, a better way to gain a new Respighi piece for the repertoire would have been to edit just the slow movement as it stood, with some such title as “Romantic Poem for violin and orchestra”. Laura Marzadori’s excellent performance suggests that, in this form, the music might have some future.

The Suite for Strings is described on the track list as “revised” by Di Vittorio. The liner notes (in both languages) refer to a “transcription”. No attempt is made to define its original form or the degree of intervention needed to make it performable. This is not indicated as a world première recording, so presumably at least one string ensemble has managed to play it without Di Vittorio’s assistance. The music is agreeable rather than memorable. Pace the liner notes, I should have thought that the remarkable thing is how little it presages the far more original writing of the third set of “Ancient Airs and Dances”. Di Vittorio’s careful moulding of the slower movements may be admired, but a little more zip in the faster ones would not have done any harm.

The liner notes rightly point out that, while Respighi claimed “Rossiniana” as mere orchestrations of original piano pieces by Rossini, in reality he used the original music simply as starting points for his own imagination. Compared with everything else on the disc, this work has a creative vitality and a sound world that mark it out as wholly individual. If it is less celebrated than the Rossini-inspired “La boutique fantasque” this is probably on account of its darker hues, revolving around the starkly magnificent “Lamento”. Di Vittorio’s handling of this is very fine. The final “Tarantella” could do with a bit more unbuttoned “slancio”. This is not in itself a matter of tempo. Di Vittorio seems unable or unwilling to challenge the players to give all they’ve got and more, it all remains rather comfortable. Ensemble is not always precise here, either.

Naxos already has a much-praised version of “Rossiniana” under JoAnn Falletta. I don’t know this, but the situation seems clear. Respighi completists will want the new material on the present CD. General collectors whose Respighi so far extends only to the Roman Trilogy will do better with Falletta’s couplings of “Church Windows” and “Brazilian Impressions”. Much older versions of “Rossiniana” under Beecham and Ansermet may still be available. The sound on the new disc is clear and close.

Christopher Howell

Mainly for Respighi completists.

See also review by Ian Lace