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Ottorino RESPIGHI (1879-1936)
Feste romane (1928) [23.59]
Fontane di Roma (1916) [15.55]
Pini di Roma (1924) [22.01]
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta
rec. 2018, Kleinhans Music Hall, Buffalo, USA
NAXOS 8.574013 [62.13]

The coupling of Respighi’s two ‘symphonic poems’ The Fountains of Rome and The Pines of Rome was a staple of the catalogues from the earliest days of LP, and the addition of the third of his ‘Roman Trilogy’ in the form of the later Feste Romane has equally become a standard formula on disc for the CD era. Although Fountains, the first of the three works to be composed in 1916, was originally intended to stand on its own, the addition of the two further panels eight and twelve years later was clearly envisioned by the composer as part of a larger unit although he avoided any duplication of thematic material which would have bound them together as a collection (unlike for example Smetana’s similarly patriotic Ma Vlast). It is usual for the three to be performed on disc in the order of their composition, which is also the arrangement adopted in Ricordi’s published score; but it is a measure of the thought that has gone into this new recording that the more delicate Fountains (with its slightly smaller orchestra) has been placed as a more tranquil interlude between the two more obviously extrovert scores with the grandiose climax of the finale to the Pines placed last and the boisterous Feste Romane being used to launch the disc with the spectacular gladiatorial games of the Roman Empire, specifically Nero whose name is quoted in Respighi’s programmatic introduction to the score. These notes by the composer form the bulk of the booklet material for this release, for some reason given only in English translation.

This is the second Naxos issue of Respighi from this orchestra and conductor – their previous disc coupling the magnificent Church windows suite with the equally colourful Brazilian impressions and Rossiniana having proved a critical success ten years ago and presenting a formidable challenge to the established CD coupling by Geoffrey Simon on Chandos. Competition in the field of the Roman Trilogy is of course much fiercer – the current Archiv catalogues list some 25 alternative versions, many in more than one format, including a previous Naxos 1991 recording by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Enrique Bátiz. That was enthusiastically reviewed by the editors of the Penguin Guide, being placed above alternatives from such luminaries as Ormandy, Ozawa, Dutoit and even Toscanini; but maybe after 28 years the label felt the need to release a newer version although the sound of the old one was hailed in its day as spectacular.

The recorded sound here is very fine, but perhaps a trifle over-analytical; the piano part in The pines of the Janiculum almost conveys the feeling of a concerto as the player is introduced, and the strings lack the rich sense of Mediterranean warmth than one finds in other performances. This may well have been deliberate, since the resonant acoustic of the auditorium must have presented a challenge to the engineers in the more heavily scored passages; and in this music heavily scored passages come thick and fast. The irregular bars of silence at the end of the Circenses movement of Feste Romane, for example, are far from ‘vuota’ as indicated in the score, with an overhang of echo from the orgy of sound that has preceded them filling up the silences almost completely. The more delicate textures in the opening and closing movements of The Fountains fare much better in the balance; but the sounds of the shepherds’ piping in the woodwind are just that little bit too fast to register with the sense of bucolic rusticity that their quirky rhythms demand.

On the other hand, the cheeky phrases of the children’s games at the Pines of the Villa Borghese have plenty of character and less sheer noise than one has sometimes encountered. It is a pity that beginning of the following Pines by the catacombs is launched with a trumpet solo which is by no means as distant and mysterious as Respighi clearly expected with his instruction “il piů lontano possibile”. Nor is the muttering chanting, which builds so powerfully during the following bars, anything like as overwhelming as it might have been at a slightly slower speed or with more precise definition. (Even the vulgar trombone solo in the final movement of Feste Romane could have benefited from a little more panache.) The recorded nightingale in The pines of the Janiculum is also discreet; when is someone from the “period instrument brigade” going to let us hear a remastered version of the specified disc (“No R 6105 del “Concert Record Gramophone: Il canto d’usignolo”, Respighi states unequivocally in the score) and let us hear how the composer’s careful scoring links in with the “grammofono” which he employs.

That use of the “grammofono” leads here into a superlatively charged Pines of the Appian Way which brings the trilogy to an ending of overwhelming grandeur. The grinding discords in the strings, marked “come una lamento” realise all the misery of the driven slaves and, although the six buccine (Roman trumpets) again lack the sense of distance that seems required by the instructions “isolate e chiuse…come da lontano…isolate” before they enter onto the stage they certainly make their presence felt later on. Respighi specifies that the parts should be played on “flicorni” (bugles) but, as Norman del Mar observed many years ago, “the tone-quality would surely be too mellow and tubby for the brilliant brass of the Roman Consular Army.” In this recording it sounds as though modern trumpets and trombones are used, which may not be what Respighi intended but probably answers the situation as well as any other solution. Indeed in Feste Romane the composer makes no bones about stating that the three parts for buccine should be played on trumpets, again specifying that they should be “isolati”. Be that as it may, Falletta’s conclusion to this Roman Trilogy is properly overwhelming and, despite occasional cavils, a lustrous addition to the Naxos catalogue.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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