Ottorino RESPIGHI (1879-1936)
Sinfonia drammatica (1913-1914) [58:29]
Belfagor, ouverture per orchestra (1924) [10:52]
Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège/John Neschling
rec. April 2015, Salle philharmonique, Liège, Belgium BIS BIS-2210 SACD [70:03]
Respighi's Sinfonia Drammatica tells no stories. The drama implicit in the title is that of wide contrasts and big gestures, abstract music which is romantic with a capital R. The interesting liner note by Jean-Pascal Vachon makes a strong case for this being an important and significant work - at nearly an hour in length it certainly is substantial. Vachon dismisses Respighi's widow's claim in her biography of her husband where she wrote; "The Fountains of Rome  was the first entirely characteristic work by Respighi." Vachon is right to consider the symphony powerful, skilfully and confidently written and impressive. However, it is also hard not to agree with Elsa Respighi that the first of the Rome triptych displays many more of the musical fingerprints that define the composer's greatest works.
I heard the symphony first in the recording on Marco Polo/Naxos with Daniel Nazareth and the Slovak Philharmonic (1993). That remains a decent recording and performance but decent will not do in the presence of the good and better. Certainly it was displaced immediately by Edward Downes and the BBC Philharmonic on Chandos which was released a couple of months before the Marco Polo disc. The symphony then had to wait 20 years for a new recording - on Brilliant Classics as part of their survey from Francesco La Vecchia and the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma. I have not heard that version. Now there is this new recording - and the first on SACD - from John Neschling and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Liège for BIS. This is Neschling's fourth BIS/Respighi disc and his third in Liège. I listened to the SACD stereo layer and very good it is too, although not substantially more impressive than the recording by the Chandos engineers twenty years before. I suspect this is as much to do with technical/aesthetic choices. The Liège orchestra sit slightly further back in a concert hall acoustic producing a more blended sound as it reaches the listener. That said, rather curiously the principal clarinet stands out in one or two solos in a musically impressive but acoustically over-prominent way. Chandos make more choices for the listener. This is vintage Chandos - timpani and brass are given exciting presence which in this work seems appropriate.
Whether created on the mixing desk, or in the studio, the BBC Philharmonic make a bigger and more vibrant sound. Nimble and skilled though the Liège players are, it’s hard not to hear the BBC Philharmonic as the superior ensemble. In the central rather portentous Andante Sostenuto Respighi conjures up a dark sepulchral atmosphere, aided by resonant organ pedal writing and brass-led chorales. The organ part is both substantial and significant and a lot more present on my system in the Chandos recording; likewise the blend and balance of the BBC brass in these chorale passages is simply better achieved. Interpretively Downes is more epic - a good three minutes slower than Neschling in the first movement and half a minute in the central Andante. Both approaches bring benefits - Neschling more impetuous, highlighting the contrasts I mentioned in my opening sentence. But I still find Downes' longer lines and brooding power very impressive too. Simply put, both approaches are dramatic – it’s just a difference of emphasis. For me, the clincher is the central movement on Chandos, which is superbly evocative and something of a tour de force for both performers and engineers. The finale is the work's least impressive part - and the one time Downes beats Neschling on the stopwatch. Again, my instinct is that moving through the music just that bit quicker papers over some of the compositional cracks.
The new disc wins in another way by offering a valuable and interesting filler; the concert overture Belfagor. Written a decade after the symphony you can hear what Elsa Respighi was driving at with the score revealing the composer's more sophisticated handling of the instruments and the material. Respighi wrote an opera of this name which premiered in 1923 with little success. Appreciating the musical quality of what he had written Respighi revisited the score and fashioned an independent concert overture based on some of the themes. The result is a highly enjoyable virtuosic display piece with strongly contrasting sections that fully deserves to be better known. This is a far suppler and subtler piece than the exciting crash and bang of the symphony. Indeed, these qualities suit Neschling and his orchestra better here than in the version offered by Downes, in that case coupled with Toccata for piano and orchestra. Again Downes favours a broader approach but with less success. In the overture it is possible to hear just what a good orchestra the Liège Philharmonique is, with alert and nimble playing throughout. Nowhere on the disc does the string section make a particularly full or rich sound, but this is of less account in the overture. Here is indeed a case to be made for enjoyable and successful Respighi scores that had been cast into outer darkness simply because they are not part of the Rome triptych. Other versions of Belfagor exist but the Chandos version is the only alternative I know.
Collectors of Neschling's ongoing Respighi survey or those wanting a performance in SACD of these works can buy with confidence. The sound is good, although I would not say it is the very finest I have heard from BIS. Whether this is a function of the recording venue or engineering I do not know. My loyalties for the main work remain with Downes. In either case, this is an entertainingly large-scale and confident symphony strongly recommended to those of a Romantic disposition.