Respighi’s Roman pieces – the Pines and Fountains
especially – have done rather well on record. Among the most
enduring performances, in no particular order, are classic accounts
Dorati, István Kertész and Fritz Reiner, all of which have
aged surprisingly well. And despite bright sound Riccardo
Muti’s 1984 recording is as red-blooded as it gets, albeit
a tad overdriven, while Antonio
Pappano and John
Neschling’s more recent versions have garnered good reviews
here and elsewhere. But, as always, old warhorses need careful
treatment if they’re not to sound simply knackered. I’ve heard
these pieces trotted out much too often, so is it reasonable
to expect something special here?
Sonically, Onyx made a good impression with their disc of Khachaturian’s
ballet music (review)
so that, coupled with the fact that this Respighi was recorded
in the tried-and-tested acoustic of Walthamstow Town Hall, augurs
well for this release. The Royal Philharmonic needs no introduction
although I haven’t heard them for years, live or on disc. However
the young Spanish conductor Josep Caballé-Domenech is new to
So how does all this fit together? Not terribly well, is the
shortish answer. The Pines of the Villa Borghese are
startling in their clarity and closeness, but one only has to
listen to Reiner – recorded in 1959 – to hear a wealth of other
instruments and colours. And to top it all there’s a relentless,
rather drilled quality to the RPO’s music-making that doesn’t
appeal to me at all. As for the Pines near a Catacomb,
Reiner’s louring strings and spooky tam-tam are much more atmospheric.
Respighi was a master orchestrator, so it’s a pity not to hear
all these wonderful touches and effects. Sadly it doesn’t end
there, for Caballé-Domenech doesn’t build the climaxes very
effectively either. And when they do arrive they sound perilously
close to overload. In fact, when the brutish organ is in full
flood there are very audible signs of distress.
The Pines of the Janiculum fare little better. Yes, there’s
some gorgeous harp and woodwind playing but otherwise textures
are thick and progress fitful. This really is a very stilted
performance, and rough-edged to boot. In the Pines of the
Appian Way the march begins well enough, but others find
more menace and cumulative power in that implacable tread. Indeed,
despite its age the Reiner version is hugely compelling at this
point. Most disappointing in the Onyx recording is the distortion
one hears in the massive finale, the cymbals especially ragged.
Just to make sure there was nothing wrong with my listening
equipment. I tried these tracks on another player and a PC with
a 24bit/192kHz sound card; no question, the music is clearly
driven into overload, something one expects in a vintage analogue
recording but not in a digital one made just a year ago. Thankfully
the muted splash of the first Roman fountain is easier on the
ear, but you’ll search in vain for any hint of character or
affection here. Even the Triton fountain lacks its usual brilliance,
that ghastly organ – dubbed, perhaps – making it all sound grotesque.
And yes, the tuttis do break up again.
What is going on here? I’ve never heard anything like this in
a modern recording, so I can only hope my review disc is faulty.
That said, the performances are well below par too. Just compare
Caballé-Domenech’s bloated Circenses and La Befana
with Toscanini’s superheated accounts (recorded in December
1949) and one soon realises how this music should go. Now there’s
an epiphany. I’ve always maintained second-rate demands first-rate
performances - Respighi’s gaudy celebration is no exception.
This new disc fails to impress on every level; musically it’s
ham-fisted and sonically it’s unbelievably crude. I don’t know
what has gone wrong here, but if you have a soft spot for this
music or a half-decent audio system avoid this release.
Masterwork Index: Respighi's