Ottorino RESPIGHI (1879-1936) Sinfonia drammatica (1913-1914) [58:29] Belfagor, ouverture perorchestra (1924) [10:52]
Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège/John Neschling
rec. April 2015, Salle philharmonique, Liège, Belgium
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from eClassical
Pdf booklet included BIS BIS-2210 SACD [70:03]
I’ve enjoyed John Neschling’s Respighi cycle
thus far, with the notable exception of his Roman Trilogy; that said,
the latter – recorded with the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra in
2008 – was well received by Dominy Clements (review).
Subsequent instalments feature the Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de
Liège, a fine band I first encountered in a Jongen/Saint-Saëns programme
with Pascal Rophé (review).
I described Neschling’s first Respighi album with them –
Impressioni brasiliane and La Boutique fantasque –
as ‘elegant and engaging’ (review).
The follow-up – Metamorphoseon, Ballata delle gnomidi
and Belkis – is just as beguiling (review).
There are more than enough versions of the Roman Trilogy in the catalogue,
but far fewer of the composer’s more obscure pieces. Chandos plugged
some of the gaps in the 1980s, with a splendid disc from Geoffrey Simon
and the Philharmonia; that has been repackaged as a twofer that includes
Yan Pascal Tortelier’s take on the ubiquitous triptych (review).
Chandos then released several Respighi CDs with Ted Downes and the BBC
Philharmonic; their recordings of the Sinfonia drammatica (CHAN9213)
and the Belfagor overture (part of CHAN9311) are my comparative
versions here. Francesco La Vecchia’s Brilliant boxes are also
worth a look (Vol.
Respighi’s sprawling, three-movement Sinfonia drammatica,
written in Rome at the start of the First World War, divided opinion
from the start. The composer’s debt to Wagner and Richard Strauss
is all too evident, but those new to the work may feel its textures
rather clotted at times. And stirring as they are, those organ pedals
and thunderous timps can add to a sense of overindulgence. Still, there’s
some gorgeous, woodwind writing in the first movement, not to mention
a deep, surging lyricism. Neschling certainly underlines these attractive
qualities; he also brings a pleasing degree of transparency to the mix.
As for the Hans Kipfer/Jens Braun recording, it has oodles of detail
Those more familiar with programmatic Respighi may find this sixty-minute
sinfonia a challenge at first; stay with it though, for this
music repays careful listening. Neschling’s big-boned performance
should help; the juxtaposition of dark, tolling passages and quiet,
ear-pricking ones in the opening Allegro energico is particularly
striking. The blushful Andante sostenuto is unmistakably Straussian
at times, but then both composers have a knack of surprising us with
sudden shafts of light and loveliness. Goodness, these Belgians play
with great feeling, while Neschling shapes the music with commendable
conviction and a sure sense of style.
This blend of drive and detail is most welcome in a potentially unwieldy
work such as this. The twists and tensings of the Allegro impetuoso
are very well conveyed, as are those big, sweeping tunes. Respighi may
not have understood the term ‘economy of means’, but that
hardly matters when the sinfonia’s finale is so nobly
wrought. The pounding bass drum is undeniably exciting, but it’s
the reflective writing that really takes one’s breath away. Even
more impressive is Neschling’s ability to combine amplitude and
implacability at the end, avoiding excess as he does so.
Respighi’s comic opera Belfagor wasn’t well received
by the critics at its première in 1923. A year later the composer used
some of the material to fashion a stand-alone ouverture perorchestra, which was first performed in New York in 1926. The
light-hearted diablerie certainly comes through in the music’s
chatter and thump. There’s some lush writing too; indeed, this
could be the score to a Hollywood melodrama of the 1940s or 1950s. The
marching legions from Pini di Roma also find their way into
this music. Neschling’s performance is wonderfully theatrical;
it’s also crisp, colourful and perfectly proportioned.
This is a splendid album, and a must-have for those who warm to Neschling’s
way with this repertoire. Remarkably, Downes’s account of the
Sinfonia drammatica is even more revealing; not only that,
it’s a timely reminder of just how good a conductor he was, and
how versatile. Whether in the pit or on the podium Downes was unfailingly
dramatic, as demonstrated by his taut, forensic performances. He’s
subtler than Neschling here – his colours aren’t quite so
garish – but the narrative is no weaker for that. And while the
organ pedals in the Chandos recording are comparatively discreet the
percussion has an added frisson that you won’t hear in
the BIS one.
Downes’s Belfagor is just as accomplished. His reading
is nicely nuanced, too, and the performance and sound bring forth plenty
of detail. Moreover, THS BBC Phil sound unashamedly Romantic her, their
delivery so silky and seamless. That said, both conductors are mighty
persuasive in this music, and both should feature in any self-respecting
Respighian’s record collection. The Neschling album is good value,
but those who want to hear Downes in these pieces will need to fork
out a little more for the pleasure. Really, it’s high time Chandos
reissued all the latter’s Respighi discs in a single, budget-price
Big, bold performances with a sound to match; Ted Downes and the BBC
Phil are more insightful, though.