Ottorino RESPIGHI (1879-1936)
Pines of Rome (1923-1924) [22:11]
Fountains of Rome (1915-1916) [15:58]
Roman Festivals (1928) [24:27]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Josep Caballé-Domenech
rec. 28-29 September 2010, Walthamstow Town Hall, London, UK. DDD
ONYX 4083 [62:49]

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 from Antal 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 me.

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.

Dan Morgan

Masterwork Index: Respighi's Roman trilogy