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Ottorino RESPIGHI (1879–1936)
Feste Romane, P 157 (1928) [23:46]
Fontana di Roma, P 106 (1914-16) [14:50]
Pini di Roma, P 141 (1923-24) [21:14]
Sinfonia of London/John Wilson
rec. 2019, Church of St Augustine, Kilburn, London. DSD

Respighi’s Roman Trilogy contains music that is tailor made for Chandos recording technology. Indeed, they already have in their catalogue an estimable and very well recorded 1991 set in which the Philharmonia was conducted by Yan Pascal Tortelier (review). However, here we have a new SACD version which, let’s not beat about the bush, trumps that earlier version, both artistically and sonically.

The recordings were made in the Church of St Augustine, Kilburn. That’s the same place where John Wilson and the Sinfonia of London set down their fantastic account of the Korngold Symphony in F sharp (review). I thought that recording, made just a few months before these Respighi sessions, was sonically terrific, but I think this new disc is even more impressive. Incidentally, the booklet photos show that for this new recording the same side-on arrangement of the orchestra was adopted. It’s worth reading the review of the Korngold disc by my colleague Dave Billinge who addressed the question of the recording techniques employed. I suspect that this Respighi project was the one to which Dave referred in his comments.

John Wilson kicks off with Feste Romane. The opening of ‘Circenses’ is truly spectacular – the percussion, especially the tam-tam, is thrillingly captured by the engineers. The performance itself is pretty spectacular too; there’s exuberant energy a-plenty in the opening pages. But the Circus Maximus had a dark side, which Respighi portrays very well. This ominous, menacing music has all the dark hues and weight you could wish for. Wilson leads a magnificent, thrilling performance; the very end, with the organ adding its presence, is just breath-taking. In ‘Il giubileo’ Wilson builds the piece excitingly, starting from the subdued music that illustrates the weary pilgrims. When these self-same pilgrims catch their first sight of Rome their joyful vision of the city is thrillingly conveyed in this performance, bells and all. The opening of ‘L’Ottobrata’ is really celebratory and then, later, in what the composer described as the “balmy evening”, the mandolin flourishes amid the gentle, nocturnal soundscape. ‘La Befana (The Epiphany)’ opens with a brilliantly colourful Epiphany-eve party. The festivities are superbly conveyed by Wilson and his colleagues. At times (for example, just after 2:00) Respighi flirts with vulgarity. However, he gets away with it – and he certainly gets away with it in a performance such as this, which sweeps all before it. The last couple of minutes are tremendously exciting. This account of Feste Romane has launched the disc with a spectacular flourish.

We move on to Fontana di Roma where the pastoral landscape of the ‘Valle Giulia all’alba’ awaits us. This scene is depicted with great finesse by Respighi - and here with equal finesse by Wilson and the Sinfonia of London. Then, exuberant horns summon us to ‘La fontana del Tritone al mattino’. This movement comes alive thanks to sparkling playing by Wilson’s hand-picked orchestra. Respighi’s majestic depiction of the Trevi fountain is superbly realised; here the organ adds a superb foundation to the orchestral sound. This is another of the most spectacular passages on this disc. Finally, ‘La fontana di Villa Medici al tramonto’ is absolutely gorgeous. Respighi’s scoring is very refined, and so is the playing in this performance. The Chandos engineers let us hear all the exquisite details.

Last, but by no means least, comes Pini di Roma. John Wilson achieves an ideal start. As the pines of the Villa Borghese are illustrated, the Sinfonia of London brings out all the jubilation and effervescence in the music – and, my goodness, those children at play stick their tongues out uproariously! I love the start of ‘Pini presso una catacomba’ and the way that the quiet, subterranean depths of the orchestra set the scene and the mood for us. Rightly, though, Wilson and the engineers ensure that even at these subdued dynamic levels there’s excellent definition. In the opening pages we are treated to some wonderfully evocative woodwind solos followed by a gently distant solo trumpet. Later in the movement, the chant-like material is built to a majestic climax – the horns ring out marvellously at the peak of the climax. Wilson’s account of ‘I pini del Gianicolo’ is a feast for the ears. The lines and colours of Respighi’s bewitching sound picture are touched in with great finesse. The performance is gently rapturous, nowhere more so than at the end when a supremely sensitive solo clarinet gives way effortlessly to the sound of the nightingale. Then we’re on the Via Appia. This movement begins in near-inaudibility. John Wilson controls the long build-up superbly as the Roman legions gradually appear over the horizon. At 2:10 the marching troops become more of a reality, and then at 3:07 they are with us, the morning sun glinting on their armour and trumpets. By now, with the full orchestral panoply deployed, the performance is simply magnificent. The drums pound, the organ adds its sonority and the Glory of Rome is right there in front of us. An hour or so ago, the disc opened spectacularly and it closes in equal splendour.

This is a fabulous disc. John Wilson puts these scores across with a dramatist’s flair but also with a scrupulous ear for detail. His hand-picked orchestra plays superbly from start to finish. The big moments are absolutely thrilling, but just as exciting are the many passages of quiet subtlety; these are all delivered with unfailing sensitivity. In my view, this orchestra matches the virtuosity of Fritz Reiner’s Chicago Symphony in what has long been my go-to recording of Pines and Fountains (Reiner never recorded Feste Romana). I really couldn’t fault these performances even if I wanted to.

But then there’s the question of the recorded sound. I listened to the stereo layer of this SACD and was bowled over. In fact, right now I’m struggling to think of an orchestral recording that has impressed me more. Producer Brian Pidgeon and engineer Ralph Couzens have come up with an outstanding recording which has all the impact that you could desire in the loud passages, yet which also does full justice to the many passages of quiet music. This is a knock-out recording. If and when the Covid restrictions ease and my colleagues and I can get together again in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio I shall be pressing for this to be the very first disc we audition. As I’ve listened to this recording with admiration, I’ve wondered more than once what those legendary recordings of the past from Toscanini and Reiner would have sounded like if those conductors had been blessed with modern engineering of this calibre. I did make some comparisons with the BIS SACD on which John Neschling conducts the Trilogy (review). As you’d expect, BIS provide a state-of-the-art recording for Neschling but I think even that recording must yield on sonic grounds to the Chandos

In my enthusiasm for the performances and engineering, I must not neglect to mention also that Nigel Simeone’s notes are excellent.

If you enjoy Respighi’s brilliant orchestral portraits of Rome then I urge you to acquire this disc. It is now surely the top recommendation for these wonderfully colourful tone poems.

John Quinn

Previous review: Nick Barnard (Recording of the Month)

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