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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
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. 3, Vol. 4).

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 and dynamism.

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 per orchestra, 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 box.

Big, bold performances with a sound to match; Ted Downes and the BBC Phil are more insightful, though.

Dan Morgan



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