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Ottorino RESPIGHI (1879-1936)
Feste Romane P157 (1928) [23:46]
Fontane di Roma P106 (1914-16) [14:50]
Pini di Roma P141 (1923-24) [21:14]
Sinfonia of London/John Wilson
rec. 2019, Church of St. Augustine, Kilburn, London
Recorded in 24 bit/96KHz 5.0 channel surround sound

This disc is the third release from John Wilson and his elite session orchestra, Sinfonia of London. Things started auspiciously with the first disc of Korngold's sweeping Symphony which in turn swept the recent BBC Music Magazine Awards winning the "2020 Best Orchestral Recording" category - and rightly so. The second release was a tantalising compilation of familiar and rare French music which again has received consistently rave reviews. So, can this third disc build on success of the earlier two, especially since the repertoire here is unashamedly mainstream? The answer is a simple and resounding yes.

The Korngold recording was notable for the staggering brilliance of the playing, the demonstration-worthy quality of the engineering and production, and the convincing but individual interpretation all of which made it one of my 2019 Records of the Year. Those same values are presented here in all of Respighi's orchestral glory. Before listening to the disc, I had a little niggling query whether another recording of fairly standard repertoire was the best use of such a talented ensemble. But when something is this good then any such reservations are swept aside as irrelevancies. At about an hour long, the programming of Respighi's three Rome tone-poems makes for a good, if not overly generous, CD (Pappano on Warner adds the lovely Il Tramanto to his already impressive disc).

For many years, Respighi's fame rested on these three works alongside the less extravagant The Birds and the three suites of Ancient Airs and Dances. However, in recent times labels such as Chandos and latterly BIS, Brilliant and more sporadically Telarc have introduced listeners to the rich and diverse world of Respighi's orchestral oeuvre. Chandos started that trend with early to mid 1980's recordings of (then) rare works including Church Windows, Belkis Queen of Sheba and Metamorphoseon. The latter paired on a disc which also won a Gramophone engineering award. What that disc did for the composer in 1985, this new disc repeats in 2020. The music that makes up this Roman Trilogy is very familiar to many listeners. Each work consists of four contrasting musical portraits and in order of composition they are; Fontane di Roma, Pini di Roma and finally Feste Romane. The nay-sayers will point towards the gaudy extravagance of the scores which is in some degree true, but every cinematic climax is carefully matched and balanced by passages of real poetic beauty. Yes, there are novelties such as the use of a recorded nightingale in Pini presso una catacomba [track 10] or the deploying of buccine [a kind of ancient Roman trumpet] at the climax of the fourth movement of same work [track 12], or the chaotic melee that closes La Befana [track 4]. But that can obscure the remarkable skill with which Respighi handles such a vast array of instrumental colour. And that is where this new recording is such a triumph. I have a slight fixation with this work and as such have too many recordings of it in my collection. Simply put - for all the fine, exciting and compelling versions I know, I have never heard this music presented with such power and detail and sheer visceral excitement but also with such control and sophisticated balance - it is literally revelatory.

John Wilson directs typically energetic but detailed performances. Generally speaking his tempi sit at the livelier end of the average, but his particular success is the brilliance of the performing style. So the music - whether soft or loud - has a focus and control that is particularly compelling. Additionally, he brings a vitality to the music that transcends simple fast tempi; rhythms are beautifully pointed, melodic lines have lyrical freedom and, as mentioned, the ensemble playing has razor-sharp precision. Of course, it has to be said that Wilson's handpicked orchestra are able to respond to his every musical whim. Collectively and individually the quality of the playing - technically and musically - is simply superb. The strings play with a unanimity and precision from front to back that is the hallmark of only the very finest ensembles. Likewise the wind and brass choirs exhibit cohesion and character. The many solo lines are played with such skill as to leave me lost for superlatives. Whether it is leader Andrew Haveron's poised but sensuous solos, or the principal clarinet's meltingly atmospheric solo in the same Catacomba movement mentioned earlier or the raucously characterful trumpet and trombone in La Befana, each player perfectly encapsulates the descriptive nature of the music at that moment.

As mentioned there have been - and remain - many famous recordings from every era. After all this is repertoire that allows both performers and recording companies to display their wares to greatest effect. Look no further than Fritz Reiner in Chicago on RCA in the 1950's [who avoided Feste], Ormandy in Philadelphia on CBS/Sony in the 60's (and again about 12 years later for RCA), or Muti back in Philadelphia for EMI/Warner in 1985 or Dutoit showcasing his Montreal orchestra for Decca in 1983. Indeed every audiophile label seems to have recorded these works as exemplars of their audio virility. In purely sonic terms, the closest challenge to this new disc is the decade old SA-CD recording from BIS by John Neschling in Sao Paulo. I have to say, I do not know that recording but it was very well received. Neschling has gone onto record a series of Respighi discs for BIS but the remainder have been in Liege and although good, I find neither the recording or execution to be on as exalted a level as this new disc. In direct comparison to any/all of the famous versions mentioned above, for all their varying qualities there are some trade-offs. Reiner and Ormandy offer dynamic interpretations superbly played but sonically cannot compete with this new disc. Muti offers excitingly colourful interpretations packed with personality and brilliance. The Philadelphians are predictably fabulous but the EMI recording can sound a little congested at the biggest climaxes in a way this Chandos does not. Dutoit sounds simply too cautious too often. Of course the Decca/St. Eustache recording is gorgeous but this music needs to be both meltingly poetic or riotously muscular. Dutoit does not sound wholly comfortable in the latter. At this point, worth noting the curious fact that nearly all the well-known recordings have come from Britain, Italy and America (North and South). Apart from Karajan's recording - which again avoided Feste - I cannot think of another famous recording by the main German or French orchestras. Nigel Simeone's excellent liner points out that both Furtwängler and Karl Böhm performed Feste - neither a conductor one might expect to favour this repertoire.

There are three other recordings I enjoy a lot, each slightly unexpected in different ways. Evgeny Svetlanov conducts the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra in a live 1999 Swedish Radio broadcast. Svetlanov has previously recorded these works with his own USSR SO but this radio version is a happy fusion of Svetlanov's dynamic personality and some fine playing and decent recording. An example of Svetlanov's individuality is his heavily-trudging I pini della Via Appia where the Roman Legionnaires take 6:43 to Wilson's [far from rushed-sounding] 5:12. Svetlanov is nearly a full two minutes slower in the preceding catacombs as well! Then there is Antonio Pedrotti bringing some Southern European sunshine to the Czech PO on Supraphon. Again the character of this performance is the key. For its age, the sound is still perfectly good if not a patch on the new recording, but I always find the individuality of the Czech player's sound from this period a delight. Lastly, back in the USA, is Lorin Maazel's second recording of the work on Sony in Pittsburgh. His first version - which omitted Fontane - is a predictably brilliant/classic Decca recording from Cleveland. But just a touch too synthetically brilliant perhaps? In Pittsburgh, he recorded all three works and both interpretations and playing are very fine indeed. The especial interest with this disc is that Sony briefly experimented with using a single stereo pair of microphones strung above and slightly behind the conductor. The results are remarkably impressive - for sure the price you pay is the loss of some inner detail but conversely this does sound like a genuine concert hall experience. I would urge anyone interested in this work to hear this version that can still be bought in the usual online stores very cheaply.

But the fact remains that this new John Wilson recording is exceptional. I remember reading at the time of the first release of the Korngold Symphony that Chandos were returning to St. Augustine's Church Kilburn for the first time in some years. Why ever that choice was made, the results are astonishing. The liner lists the technical recording equipment used. I am not enough of an expert to know if this has substantially altered from previous Chandos rigs but producer Brian Pidgeon with veteran engineer Ralph Couzens have created a demonstration-quality disc if ever there was one. It has been recorded in 24 bit 5.0 channel surround sound. I listened to the SA-CD stereo layer and I would say it is the finest large-scale orchestral recording I have heard in some time. I see from the recording dates that all three of the discs released by these artists so far were recorded across two intense series of sessions some eight months apart. The Korngold disc was a delight, but perhaps the relative rarity of the music meant that the technical excellence of the disc while acknowledged, was less of a primary concern. The familiarity and scale of these Respighi works slightly reverses that process.

The dynamic range is predictably wide but not annoyingly so where quiet passages disappear into the sound floor and loud ones have you scrabbling to turn down the volume. The sound stage - even in the stereo version - is wide, deep and wonderfully detailed in the instrumental placement. At several places in these scores, Respighi deploys an organ to resplendent effect. There is no note to the contrary, so I assume the church organ was used during the actual orchestral sessions. Whatever the truth, the impact of the deep pedals is thrilling - exactly as one imagines Respighi wanted it to be. Likewise the previously-mentioned buccine play in wonderful antiphonal separation from their modern trumpet counterparts which makes for a very theatrical effect - again surely just what the music needs. But the less 'spectacular' aspects of these scores are recorded with just as much care and precision. Respighi's use of orchestral piano, harp and celeste register with ideal clarity without feeling unduly spotlit. This is one of those pleasurable occasions when it seems pointless to 'review' a disc when really all you want to do is sit back and enjoy it.

As will be clear by now, I consider this a wholly successful disc and it is a shoo-in for a place in my record-of-the-year list. I would be amazed if it does not feature in at least the engineering category for major awards next year. I would like to think it would be considered for orchestral awards too although I wonder if some lingering (misplaced) snobbery regarding the musical quality of these scores will work against it.

Even by the consistently high standards of the label, this might just be one of Chandos' finest feats of engineering ever, showcasing the superlative and sophisticated playing of John Wilson's Sinfonia of London. A genuine triumph.

Nick Barnard

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