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Ottorino RESPIGHI (1879-1936)
Fontane di Roma [16:52]
Pini di Roma [21:50]
Antiche danze ed arie — Suite III [20:02]
Berliner Philharmoniker/Herbert von Karajan
rec. August 1969 Französische Kirche, St. Moritz (Antiche arie); December 1977 & January – February 1978, Philharmonie, Berlin. ADD
Presto CD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 413 822-2 [58:44]

Despite Respighi’s considerable output, and a concerted effort by his admirers to record and popularise his oeuvre, apart from the Roman Trilogy and Antiche arie, very little else of his music is regularly heard - although I could see his most successful opera, the erotic shocker La fiamma, experiencing a revival.

There is no shortage of highly recommendable recordings of those works; Respighi was championed and recorded by star-conductors such as Toscanini, Reiner, Dorati, Kertész, Ormandy et al, and just recently my MusicWeb colleague Nick Barnard made John Wilson’s recording of the Roman Trilogy with the Sinfonia of London on Chandos his “single best” Recording of the Year 2020. This recording by Karajan, too, has been widely praised but unfortunately features only two parts of the Roman Trilogy; there is no Feste Romane. Furthermore, the CD remastering of this disc first appeared in 1984 but was reissued by DG in 1996 in the “Originals” series with additional bon-bons by Boccherini and Albinoni. That is still available, so this earlier, shorter-measure Respighi compilation released under licence by Presto cannot be preferable to one containing twenty minutes more music.

Having said that, this is still scintillating playing from Karajan and “his” orchestra recorded at their peak and when they were happiest as a team. The contrast between the more boisterous Fontane and the more delicate Pini makes them an ideal pairing, with the four Arie as a lovely appendix. The delicacy of “La fontana di Valle Giulia all’alba” reminds the listener of the unexpected affinity Karajan and the BPO had with French Impressionistic music, especially when contrasted with the brilliance of the next movement, “La fontana del Tritone al mattino” – which nonetheless has more than a hint of Debussy’s La mer and Dukas’ L’apprenti sorcier. The Trevi fountain episode is a glorious, triumphant burst of concerted orchestra colour until the music segues seamlessly and imperceptibly into the chiming of the Angelus, the bells tolling under chirruping bird-song. Karajan sustains a dreamy, diaphanous atmosphere throughout the final Villa Medici section, which fades magically.

The opening of “I Pini di Villa Borghese” is startlingly percussive and the brief movement builds to a splendidly raucous climax. The brooding menace and majesty of the catacombs movement are flawlessly realised and the virtuosity of individual soloists such the cor anglais opening the Janiculum section ensures that the ear is consistently charmed; nothing ever jars. The nightingale’s song is seamlessly grafted onto the close. Despite the gentle enchantment of the three proceeding movements, there is real foreboding in the approach of the legion along the Via Appia. Karajan’s choice of tempo and grasp of the overall structure as he gradually builds are perfectly judged; the ominous rumblings are gradually transmuted into a triumphant Straussian blaze, and the full weight and sonority of the BPO are released in a manner which few orchestras could emulate.

The smoothness and sustained legato of the Antiche arie suite will irk listeners who demand a spikier, more astringent manner but we must remember that this is not echt baroque but an early 20C Romantic adaptation of period lute music. The lushness of the bass-heavy renditions here might repel some but I love it, in the same way that I thoroughly enjoy Karajan’s account of Handel’s Concerti Grossi recorded around the same time in the same mountain holiday venue.

My preference for recommended recordings of Respighi’s symphonic poems rests with two favourites, not just for the quality of sound and playing but simply because they offer all three: I love the brash, flashy allure of Batiz on Naxos in spectacular sound, and, for contrast, the 1999 concert by Svetlanov on the Wetblick label (also recommended by Nick), offering a combination of grace, subtlety and sonic brilliance which make it hard to resist. For recordings of the pairing of Pini and Feste, or just the Pines of Rome alone, in combination with rarer music by Respighi, Mata and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (Dorian) and Eiji Oue in Minnesota (Reference) respectively are both superb, aesthetically and sonically. For all three suites of the Antiche arie, the vintage recording by Dorati on Mercury Living Presence (also available on the budget Alto label with The Birds and excerpts from Brazilian Impressions) remains hard to beat. Nonetheless, I still want this Karajan recording in my collection, too, as witness to one of the great conductorial-orchestral partnerships doing full justice to some magnificent music. My only reservation is as per above: this Presto reissue provides short measure compared with the “Originals” issue. Note that the recording dates and venues are not given in the booklet, so I resorted to the discography in order to supply those.

Ralph Moore

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