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Ottorino RESPIGHI (1879-1936)
Antiche danze ed arie per liuto, Suites Nos. 1-3 (1917, 1923, 1932) [14:48 + 15:46 + 15:48]
Gli uccelli, Suite for Small Orchestra (1928) [18:22]
Munich Radio Orchestra/Henry Raudales
rec. Studio 1, Bavarian Radio, Munich, 28-30 April, 6-7 July, 17-18 September 2009
SACD/CD Surround/Stereo. Reviewed in standard CD format
co-production with Bavarian Radio
CPO 777 233-2 SACD [64:52]

One’s first thought on encountering this disc is likely to involve a ‘why?’. Why, for example, should you buy a full-price performance of fairly standard orchestral repertoire which can easily be acquired for less elsewhere? Alto (ALC1222), for example, still market the classic (ex-Mercury) Dorati performances of this very coupling (once reissued by Newton); and, for the price of this CPO release, you can acquire ‘twofers’ including these works alongside Respighi’s ‘Roman Trilogy’ under such luminaries as Muti, Marriner (review) or Sinopoli.

One’s second thought might then involve a ‘who?’. The Munich Radio Orchestra, admittedly, is a known, if not particularly high-profile quantity; but Henry Raudales? Who might he be? Well, the booklet describes him as a ‘Belgian violinist born in Guatemala’, whose teachers included Yehudi Menuhin and Henryk Szeryng, and who has ‘won 12 different concertmaster positions in different countries’. Since 2001 he has been concertmaster of the Munich Radio Orchestra, whom he apparently also conducts on a regular basis – and, whilst we are not told, we must assume from both the size of the orchestra and the crispness of its ensemble that he is conducting rather than leading it here.

Whatever one’s initial scepticism, though, one does not have to listen to this disc for very long to realize that it can occupy a distinct and valuable niche in a relatively crowded market. First there is the sound: a model of clarity, bloom and warmth, not least in the bass, and available in surround sound, multi-channel stereo and SACD, as well as the ‘standard’ CD format I listened to. Then — this to me was the real surprise, since there is no hint of it in the booklet — we have here what is surely a first, namely ‘historically informed’ Respighi: no string vibrato, generally brisk speeds, a certain snappiness to the accents and, above all, a really refreshing clarity of detail. One can object that such an approach is inappropriate for works written between 1917 and 1932 – which, admittedly, transcribe Baroque originals, but present them in decidedly modern orchestral dress; the Antiche danze ed arie are based on lute pieces, Gli uccelli mainly on works for harpsichord. Yet, for me, it works.

The fact that it works reflects above all the musical qualities of the performance. It is a great advantage to be able to hear exactly what the Munich Radio Orchestra is doing, because it is so good. The string players come into their own especially in the Third Suite of Antiche danze ed arie, scored for strings alone (without double basses): when listening to its opening ‘Italiana’, for example, I wrote down such words as ‘gracious’, ‘nicely pointed’ and ‘tight ensemble’. The woodwind are a fine, characterful team as well, not just in the chattering birdsong of Gli uccelli, but in more lyrical sections like the ‘Gagliarda’ of Suite 1. The numerous, always clearly audible interventions of the harp and harpsichord remind one tellingly of the instruments for which the pieces were originally written. There is also much to praise about Raudales’ conducting: he moulds phrases affectionately, controls rubato particularly well, and conveys a very palpable sense of enjoyment. I could do with fewer and less obvious speedings-up or slowing-downs at the ends of movements. I didn’t particularly enjoy the occasional overdone swelling at the end of a phrase, and at times found myself missing the rather ‘straighter’ chamber orchestra approach of a Marriner or Scimone. Moreover the odd movement is perhaps too fast: the ‘Bergamasca’ of Suite 2 or the ‘Siciliana’ of Suite 3, for instance.

These and other passing reservations are insignificant, though, beside the appealing combination of freshness and polish that these readings convey. The more I lived with them, the more I liked them: something which I found to be true also of the artwork by Catrin Welz-Stein, if sadly not of the overblown, rather self-indulgent and indifferently translated booklet note by Eckhardt van den Hoogen. I can, I think, confidently predict that anyone who acquires this disc and listens to it with open ears will find it life-enhancing and highly enjoyable.

Nigel Harris