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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
BIS BIS-2210 SACD [70:03]

This is John Neschling’s latest Respighi recording for BIS but the first that I’ve heard. His São Paolo recording of the Roman Trilogy was greeted with acclaim by Dominy Clements and Brian Wilson (review). Subsequent recordings have been made in Liège. Dan Morgan gave a very warm welcome to a pairing of Impressioni brasiliane and La Boutique fantasque (review) and found much to admire in a further release which included Metamorphoseon and Belkis, Regina di Saba (review).

There have been at least two previous recordings of the Sinfonia drammatica. One was a Chandos disc by the BBC Philharmonic and Sir Edward Downes (CHAN9311) which has the same coupling as Neschling; we don’t appear to have reviewed that disc, though I note that in his review of the present BIS release Dan Morgan felt that Downes had even more to offer in the Sinfonia than Neschling. The other is from Naxos and features the Slovak Philharmonic under Daniel Nazareth (review). I’ve heard neither of these rival recordings. Indeed, the Sinfonia drammatica was completely new to me; curiosity inspired me to request to review it.

Respighi began work on the Sinfonia in 1913 and it took him a full year to complete although, as Jean-Pascal Vachon tells us in his helpful notes, part of the long gestation time can be explained by the fact that the composer got distracted by other projects. Mr Vachon adds that at this time Respighi was bedevilled by homesickness and the disappointment of a broken engagement. I wonder, also, to what extent he was influenced by the gathering political storm-clouds in Europe. The Sinfonia is conceived on a huge scale. It is divided into three movements of which the vast first movement plays for approaching 23 minutes in this performance. The scoring is similarly ambitious with triple woodwind, no fewer than six horns, a full brass complement, organ (pedals only), a significant percussion section and a large body of strings.

The Sinfonia offers a very different proposition to the Roman Trilogy, all of which lay in the future at that point in Respighi’s career. It’s much darker in hue and more serious in countenance. Although the score displays great confidence and imagination in the use of the orchestra the end result is very different to the Trilogy and not as brilliant. Despite the title of the work there’s no programme; rather, the use of the word drammatica gives an indication of the type of music we’re to hear.

The opening of the first movement certainly accords with the title of the work. Jean-Pascal Vachon describes the opening gesture as a “call to arms” and that’s a very fitting description. The opening minutes consist of big, powerful music which Neschling and the Belgian orchestra project strongly. The vivid, detailed BIS sound helps enormously in putting over the potent rhetoric of these pages. The music that follows is by no means all heavy and dark but the primary impression that I came away with from this movement was of music that is often turbulent and inspired by strong emotions. In the notes we read that Respighi came in for some criticism after the work’s 1915 premiere. There was a feeling that the score was too heavily influenced by German music – one critic expressed a preference for “plain and primitive operas such as Cavalleria Rusticana, in which the Italian sun shines, to very learned symphonic architectures that originated somewhere between Garmisch and Bayreuth.” There’s no doubt that the influence of Richard Strauss and Wagner can be felt – there is, for example, a choice example of ripe Straussian writing for strings prior to the big climax that arrives just after 10:00. I’m interested that the contemporary critic referred disparagingly to “learned symphonic architectures”. The notes tell us that the first movement follows sonata-form with an exposition, development, recapitulation and coda. I’m sure that’s true but I have to admit that I found it hard to discern where the various elements of sonata-form structure began and ended. That’s not a criticism of Respighi – more of me, actually – but rather an indication that the music isn’t at all “learned”; instead what really catches the listener’s ear is the sheer passion of the writing. After a good deal of dramatic, red-blooded music the movement subsides in a coda that features poetic clarinet and violin solos. As the music dies away to nothing one has the impression that passion is spent.

Actually, it’s not spent for there’s rich, impassioned writing for strings and woodwind at the start of the central movement, which is marked Andante sostenuto. Shortly thereafter we hear more relaxed music, first on the flute and then from other members of the woodwind family. However, the main characteristic of the music is sombre. Gradually Respighi lightens the mood a little and the final climax (13:45) is ardent before this movement, too, achieves a tranquil conclusion. The finale begins with music that has intense energy and in which there is plenty of rhythmic drive. This is potent stuff. At 5:00 there’s an ear-catching short episode in which dark bassoons and lower strings usher in what sounds like a tragic catharsis, even if the dynamics are relatively restrained. From here on the music is searingly intense at times (for example just before and after 8:00). At 14:19 a solo oboe begins a slow processional which culminates (16:00) in a long climax of profound tragedy over pounding drums. Respighi sustains this tragic intensity to the very end of the work and the closing bars are enormously powerful.

Is the Sinfonia drammatica a slumbering giant of a piece, comparable to, say, the symphonies of Mahler? The short answer is no. For one thing I’m not entirely sure he sustains the length of this composition; some editing might have been beneficial, especially in the first movement. Furthermore, although Respighi displays great assurance and imagination in his handling of the orchestra the piece does feel over-scored at times. Having issued those caveats I have to say that this is a grandly impressive piece and I’m very glad to have discovered it at last, not least because it shows Respighi in what was to me a new light. The work’s cause is helped immeasurably by the skill and conviction with which the Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège delivers it under the leadership of John Neschling.

The filler is a concert overture that Respighi fashioned from his opera Belfagor. The opera was premiered in 1923 but was coolly received. Unwilling to see the main musical ideas go to waste, the composer used them for an overture which is completely independent of the opera. It’s a colourful and most attractive score that contains some angular material associated with the anti-hero of the opera and also some sweeping lyrical music derived from music associated with the opera’s heroine. It’s a good piece and one must be glad that Respighi indulged in this musical recycling. Neschling and the Liège orchestra give it a vibrant performance. Had I been planning the disc, however, I would have placed the overture first. One wants the powerful end of Sinfonia drammatica to resonate uninterrupted by more music so I would advise stopping or pausing the disc once you’ve listened to the main offering.

This is my first encounter with John Neschling’s Respighi recordings but having heard this fine disc I plan to rectify that omission. I listened to this disc as an SACD and found the vivid BIS recording excellent in every respect.

John Quinn

Previous reviews: Dan Morgan ~ Nick Barnard


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