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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
Italian text & English translation included
BIS BIS-2250 SACD [66:26]

For many music lovers, Respighi obstinately remains a one-hit composer, assuming the triptych of Roman tone poems to constitute ‘one’ group of works. Indeed, it was with these most famous works that BIS instigated their current survey of his orchestral works with the conductor John Neschling. That disc was recorded in SACD format using the excellent São Paulo Symphony Orchestra and was received with great acclaim. Since then the series has continued with the Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège as it does with this new disc, the fifth overall in the series. Collectors who have been following this series avidly need not hesitate, Neschling's evident sympathy for this composer’s work allied to really excellent BIS engineering and production ensures this is a top-rate disc.

Not that any of the music contained here is unique or even that rare in the current catalogue. However, I do think that this is the first series of Respighi discs to benefit from being recorded in 5.0 surround sound. As a sampler of this composer I think this disc has especial value. Yes, there are moments in the Vetrate di Chiesa that challenge the cinematic spectacle of the Roman trilogy but what this disc shows is the range of the composer. His fascination for the music of earlier times - Gregorian chant in particular - is evident, as is the brilliance of his orchestral palette even when writing for the smaller orchestra of the Trittico Botticelliano. But the real gem here is the relatively rare (pre-Roman trilogy) dramatic scena Il Tramonto. By no means unknown in the catalogue these days, every encounter with it reinforces just how effectively and passionately Respighi wrote for the human voice.

So, if no single element of this disc’s contents is unique, certainly the coupling is. The other factor that strongly favours this disc is the quality of the BIS engineering. Their stated goal is to “reproduce the natural sound in a concert venue as faithfully as possible”. I listened to the stereo SACD layer and the sound is gorgeous. Very natural, transparent and translucent. To my ear this benefits the subtleties of the Trittico Botticelliano best. From the opening shimmeringly ecstatic strings and bright-eyed brass fanfares through to the pointing up of textures from glockenspiel and harp this recording presents them with perfect clarity. Neschling’s interpretation is a model of alert sensitivity too. I like the way he keeps the string rhythm that opens the final movement, La nascita di Venere, well-pointed - over the languorous woodwind it becomes very easy for the strings to slip into a triplet-feel rather than the dotted one given. The solo flute on this new recording is particularly beguiling. So, a very fine opening to this disc indeed - but that said this work is rather lucky on disc with numerous fine recordings to choose from. One other version I have always enjoyed - originally on Collins Classics and now re-released on Brilliant - is from Richard Hickox with his City of London Sinfonia. The Collins engineering is very good, if not the equal of BIS here, but the trump card that Hickox has is Janet Baker singing Il Tramonto. Neschling has Anna Caterina Antonacci who in her own right is very good but there is no shame in saying that she is not the equal of Baker. Antonacci has superb diction and clearly points the text but Baker’s remarkable skill, aside from her superb technical accomplishment, was an ability to identify with a text without making the listener overly aware that she was doing so – it’s a rare ability to totally inhabit a character. There is also the question that Antonacci is a soprano and this is usually sung by a mezzo - as indicated by the score. It is not a question of the range or the notes - in that sense Antonacci sings them with ease. This is more to do with the essential timbral differences between voices which lie in different ranges. As written this music ‘sits’ in Baker's range more ideally, giving it a richer more mellifluous and indeed sensuous sound.

The text - provided in full in the booklet in English and in the Italian translation Respighi set - is by Shelley - and tells of a love brutally interrupted by Destiny. Liner writer Jean-Pascal Vachon rightly points to the work’s post-Romanticism. Musically it is fascinating to hear Respighi write with Straussian lushness one minute and suddenly find a moment uniquely his own of still rapture.

Aside from preferring Baker’s inhabiting of the role more than Antonacci, I would have two other observations. Slightly curiously, BIS have chosen to place the voice quite forward in the mix. To my ear not always to the voice’s advantage and certainly contrary to the avowed goal of a natural hall balance. The closeness reduces the dynamic range of Antonacci’s voice and also highlights a slight hardening in her tone as the dynamics rise. My second observation is that in direct comparison to the string sections of other orchestras who have recorded this work, the players in the Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège are fractionally less assured and polished. Do not get me wrong, this is still fine playing, but when you can also here the strings of the CLS or the English Chamber Orchestra - another fine version from Hyperion conducted by Alfredo Bonavera with the mezzo Carol Madalin - or Pappano’s Orchestra dell' Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Roma on EMI, the Liège players are not quite as good. Listen no further than the very first chord of the work - here it lacks the weight and unanimity of attack of any of the versions mentioned. In isolation then, this is perfectly good, but for the best single version of this very beautiful and moving work I personally would look elsewhere.

The disc closes with the afore mentioned Vetrate di Chiesa. Two of the four ‘windows’ are Respighi in ‘spectacle’ mode. Mode being the operative word since he makes use of Gregorian Chants and modal melodies to give this music an archaic feel. Vachon usefully reminds readers that the work started as a set of Tre preludi sopra melodie gregoriane for piano, composed between 1919 and 1921. A few years later, Respighi returned to the set, added a fourth movement and orchestrated them as the suite we now know. I must admit that I have never heard the keyboard original and given how effective they are in orchestral garb I am curious to hear them. Vachon also tells how the descriptive titles were added after the music was written and warns listeners not to try and find the nominal windows after which they were named since they do not exist!

Again Neschling is as good as any interpreter in the lyrical opening of the work – ‘La fuga in Egitto’ - where the reflective mood is immediately established which the composer imagined as a camel caravan passing calmly under a starry sky. This is Respighi at his most ecstatically pastoral and both players and engineering catch this mood to perfection. There follows ‘San Michele Arcangelo’ which Respighi envisioned as the mighty Arcangel battling a dragon - this movement rather gloriously out-epics Miklós Rózsa in Biblical-epic mode. Possibly audio thrill seekers could say that the naturalness of the BIS engineering rather minimises the ‘glorious-technicolour’ of this movement. Certainly the organ pedals do not have the presence that they do on other recordings - the early demonstration Chandos recording from Geoffrey Simon and the Philharmonia or even, surprisingly, the first version of this work I knew from Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia orchestra on CBS/Sony spring to mind. But I do like a lot the fact that the BIS engineers allow the closing mighty crash on the tam-tam to resonate away into true silence for a good 30 seconds and more - the CBS engineers called it quits after about 10 and even the audiophiles at Chandos and Telarc - the latter in Cincinnati - cut the ringing short. Now it might seem rather petty to fixate on the quality of a dying gong stroke but I do think this encapsulates the audiophile intentions of the BIS engineering. Reviewing the earlier release in this series of the Sinfonia Drammatica I noted a similar lack of presence of the organ relative - in that instance - to the Chandos recording from Edward Downes. Clearly, this is a characteristic of the instrument in the Salle Philharmonique rather than any technical ‘shortcoming’.

The set of windows is completed by the longest movement – ‘San Gregorio Magno’. This is the movement that Respighi wrote directly for orchestra and it allows him full reign to evoke a musical picture of the 6th Century Pope who gave his name to the musical reforms that would give the world Gregorian Chant. In Vachon's words; “the mood increases in intensity until we reach a veritable ecstasy of sound, with an opulence that would remain unequalled in Respighi’s output until the composition of Roman Festivals. This movement is grist to the mill of Respighi nay-sayers and the polar opposite of the jewel-like intimacies of the Trittico Botticelliano. This is precisely why this disc is such a good sampler of this composer’s work. Again, the BIS engineering is literally revelatory - the front to back orchestral detail is quite superb with telling contributions from the orchestral piano and deftest percussion strokes registering beautifully. I have just the slightest nagging sense that the Liège heavy brass do not have quite the swagger and heft of the Philadelphia or Philharmonia players and the strings as recorded cannot match those illustrious ensembles for sheer weight of tone.

That said this still makes for a thrilling conclusion to a disc where the positives easily outweigh the occasional reservation. Individually I would say as performances the Trittico is up there with the best I have heard while the other two works I would cherry pick other versions first. But for collectors of this series or those seeking audiophile sound above all other things this is worthy of serious consideration.

Nick Barnard

Previous reviews: Dan Morgan (Recording of the Month) ~ John Quinn



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