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Ottorino RESPIGHI (1879-1936)
Metamorphoseon (1930) [29:16]
Ballata delle gnomidi (1920) [16:37]
Belkis, Regina di Saba – Suite (1934) [25:15]
Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège/John Neschling
rec. June 2014, Salle philharmonique, Liège, Belgium
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from
Pdf booklet included
BIS BIS-2130 SACD [72:15]

There’s so much more to Respighi than his Roman trilogy, which is why I was pleased to welcome John Neschling’s recent recording of Impressioni brasiliane and La Boutique fantasque (review). That, too, is with the Liège Philharmonic, whose fine playing certainly made me sit up and take notice. I characterised that coupling as ‘elegant and engaging’, which is also true of the sound. Incidentally, this orchestra also stars in a recent and rather lovely Jongen collection from Musique en Wallonie (review).

I’ve chosen Geoffrey Simon’s Metamorphoseon and Belkis as my comparative versions here. These are now available on a well-stocked Chandos twofer that Rob Barnett described as ‘irresistible’. Indeed, listening to Simon’s Respighi in preparation for this review I was struck anew by how easeful and exciting he is in this repertoire. No quibbles with the sound, either. As for the Ballata I compared Neschling’s account with that of Eiji Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra on Reference Recordings. I marginally preferred that to Oue's Belkis and Pini di Roma – on the same disc – which are much too literal for my liking.

Metamorphoseon, a Koussevitzky commission for the Boston Symphony’s 50th birthday, presents two themes followed by a set of variations. The latter aren’t so much a formal reworking of those initial ideas as a redistribution of them among various instruments and groups thereof. As Jean-Pascal Vachon points out in his liner-notes, Metamorphoseon is a concerto for orchestra that has nothing to do with the modes or scales associated with Medieval music.

Neschling gives Metamorphoseon the full-cream treatment, with luscious strings and a pleasing sweep. Respighi’s penchant for bold gestures breaks through from time to time – the trenchant statements in Modus I, II and X especially – but otherwise it’s all about shifting moods and colours. The Liège woodwinds are warm and, where necessary, nicely articulated. Balances are close, but not stiflingly so, and the timp-drenched tuttis of Modus IV bloom most beautifully. Also, Neschling strikes a good balance between impetus and atmosphere.

There’s much to savour in this marvellous recording, but Modus VII, with its harp-led passages, inward strings and echoing brass, is particularly memorable. The sense of play and interplay is artfully maintained, and Neschling ensures that rhythms are well sprung at all times. The tense, dark-toned Modus IX, perhaps reminiscent of the Catacombs section of Pini di Roma, is very well handled; ditto the full-blown finale, which brings to mind the equally jubilant close of Alfredo Casella’s Symphony No. 2 (review).

This is a performance of pleasing aspect, well played and recorded. However, switching to Simon’s account makes Neschling seem rather cool and reserved by comparison. The passionate, full-throated contribution of the Philharmonia – not to mention the vintage Chandos sound – certainly suggest a much bigger, bolder canvas. Such vivid colours, so vigorously applied, and what an eye-catching picture. It’s rather gaudy, but one could argue that Simon’s Metamorphoseon is much closer to the spirit of the piece than Neschling’s; certainly there’s no escaping the work’s kinship with that Technicolor triptych.

At times the opening of Ballata delle gnomidi (Ballad of the gnomes), which dates from 1920, prefigures the Pines, penned four years later. Although the premiere didn’t go down well – it’s not the composer at his best – the piece is still worth hearing. Neschling’s treatment of it is well nigh ideal, for he doesn’t allow it to become too flashy – crude, even – and he makes the most of Respighi’s very robust rhythms. The recording is impressive too – the crisply detailed percussion especially – and the closing pages are great fun. By comparison Oue’s version now seems rather lacking in personality and flair.

Belkis, Regina di Saba (Belkis, Queen of Sheba) is scored for a very large orchestra, and vocal parts, but the trimmed-down Suite No. 1 – the second was never completed – is still a hefty piece that packs a terrific punch. The beginning of Il sogno di Salomone (The dream of Solomon) is wonderfully sinuous; also, the pounding central section of this movement owes much to Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances. As before Neschling is powerful yet proportionate, so what might be brash in the hands of others is tastefully rendered.

Neschling really brings out the seductive sway of the second movement, La danza di Belkis all’aurora (The dance of Belkis at dawn); even though he paces it quite well there are hints of stasis that you won’t find in Simon’s version. No such qualms about Neschling's Danza guerresca (War dance), which is as taut and propulsive as one could wish. The percussion – so pivotal in this piece – is superbly caught; the cymbal splashes are particularly tinglesome. In the final Danza orgiastica (Orgiastic dance) – Strauss on steroids – Neschling and his doughty players go for broke, with spectacular results.

Simon is utterly abandoned from the start, and the big, beefy Chandos sound is as intoxicating as it gets. Yes, his recording may be too upfront for some, but the upside is that it’s incredibly visceral. As for the Philharmonia I’ve seldom heard them play with such gusto and glee. If you like your Respighi essayed with impeccable taste – and that doesn’t preclude the possibility of excitement – Neschling is your man; however, if you’re addicted to thrills look to Simon for your fix.

More splendid Respighi from Liège; the competition is fierce, though.

Dan Morgan



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