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Ottorino RESPIGHI (1879-1936)
Trittico Botticelliano (Botticelli Triptych) (1927) [20:06]
Il tramonto (The Sunset) (1914) [16:24]
Vetrate di chiesa (Church Windows) (1926) [28:49]
Anna Caterina Antonacci (soprano)
Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège/John Neschling
rec. 2016, Salle Philharmonique, Liège, Belgium
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from eClassical
Pdf booklet includes sung text in Italian, with English translation
BIS BIS-2250 SACD [66:26]

This is the fifth instalment of Brazilian conductor John Neschling’s Respighi cycle, which began with the ‘Roman Trilogy’ in 2008. That album, much praised by Dominy Clements,  was recorded with the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra; the follow-ups all feature the Liège PO. I described Volume 2 Impressioni brasiliane and La Boutique fantasque – as ‘elegant and engaging’, and while I commended Volume 3 Metamorphoseon, Ballata delle gnomidi and the Belkis Suite – I noted it wasn’t without competition. Ditto Volume 4, with its ‘big and bold’ accounts of the Sinfonia drammatica and Belfagor.

So, who are the challengers here? In Church Windows my go to versions are those of Geoffrey Simon and the Philharmonia, now on a must-have Chandos twofer, and the Buffalo Philharmonic under JoAnn Falletta (Naxos). And having read glowing reviews of Brilliant’s orchestral survey, with Francesco La Vecchia and his Rome Orchestra, I downloaded all four volumes from Qobuz for a tenner. Alas, pedestrian performances, scrappy ensemble and rough sound all suggest the set wasn’t such a good buy after all. It includes Church Windows and the Botticelli Triptych, but not The Sunset, Respighi’s setting of Shelley’s eponymous poem. This piece is new to me, as it was to Tim Perry when he reviewed the EMI-Warner recording with Christine Rice and Antonio Pappano.

Although the cantata was originally scored for mezzo and string quartet, Pappano and Neschling both opt for the version with string orchestra. The soloist here is the soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci. The poem’s solemn cadences and evanescent imagery – of love, sudden death and extended mourning – are superbly caught in music of aching simplicity and refinement. The sunset, its ‘…lines of gold / Hung on the ashen clouds’, is a moving prelude to the approaching darkness, And Antonacci’s resigned, yet ravishing tones so perfectly mirror the lady’s grief at the death of her young lover. As for the Liège strings – finely etched and full-bodied all at once – they play with a purity of line and a freight of feeling that’s intensely affecting.

What a glorious work, and what a find! Anyone inured to Respighi’s gaudy colours and thumping rhythms will be astonished by the musical and emotional range of this economical score. Neschling, his committed players and a radiant soloist whose bel canto experience is invaluable here, do the composer proud. Rice and Pappano would have to very special indeed to match, let alone surpass, this exquisite reading. Not only that, Acantus engineer Martin Nagorni’s subtle, airy recording – voice and strings in pleasing equilibrium –  is a joy to hear. It certainly augurs well for the rest of this enticing programme.

Commissioned by that doyenne of the arts, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, Respighi’s Trittico Botticelliano focuses on three of the Renaissance master’s most famous works: La Primavera (Spring),L’adorazione dei Magi (The Adoration of the Magi) and La nascita di Venere (he Birth of Venus). Spring, with its carousing tunes, speaks with an energy and boundless optimism that, for some reason, reminds me of Aaron Copland at his joyful and embraceable best. And those shawm-like calls in the second picture are very evocative; in fact, it’s the antic feel of this music that comes across so well in this clear, poised performance. The crowning pleasure comes in that natal scene, the playing – and sound – suitably refulgent, yet never cloying.

Perhaps it’s an index of age, but these days I so welcome performances that major in refinement and telling detail; both are here in abundance, helped in no small measure by a first-rate recording. That said, I’m as ready for a spot of excitement as I ever was, and Vetrate di chiesa (Church Windows) is sure to oblige. That said, I did wonder how Neschling and his band would respond to the high colour – and high drama ­– of the piece. I need not have worried, for La fuga in Egitto (the Flight from Egypt) is beautifully shaped and characterised – that antic feel again, but this time with a lush,  filmic sweep. No wonder Hollywood greats, such as John Williams, claim Respighi had such a decisive influence on their own music.

But it’s the scale of San Michele Arcangelo (St Michael Archangel) that really takes one’s breath away. Simon and Falletta are both superb here, but Neschling builds tension far more effectively – and thrillingly – than either. Every strand of this score is visible and the organ has real power and presence. I particularly liked the way that tam-ram stroke at the end is allowed to fade into the waiting silence. And it just gets better, with a lovely sense of cloistered introspection in Il mattutino di Santa Chiara (The Matins of St Clare). Indeed, the antic feel evoked here is so startling, even profound, that one could almost be listening to a devotional sequence by Hildegard of Bingen. Quite remarkable, really.

Of course, that’s a world away from Respighi’s epic portrayal of Pope Gregory 1 (c.540-604), also known as ‘the Great’. Again, Simon and Falletta do a grand job here, but they can’t match Neschling for sheer inexorability and vast spectacle. Just listen to how those ancient chants, which bear Gregory’s name, are woven into the musical fabric like threads of gold, and cower at the might of this fabulous recording. The organ has terrific weight, the bass drum is a blockbuster, and the corona of percussion at the close is simply staggering. Now, if that doesn’t leave you face down on the cathedral flags, a-tremble with awe, then nothing will. Jean-Pascal Vachon’s clear, unfussy liner-notes complete this fine package.

The highpoint of Neschling’s cycle thus far; the rarely heard Il tramonto is a real find.

Dan Morgan

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