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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

Releasing a recording of Respighi’s Roman trilogy – Fountains of Rome (1916), Pines of Rome (1924), and Roman Festivals (1928) – makes a statement. It is a showcase for an ensemble’s skill, a conductor’s interpretive choices, and a record label’s sound quality. Such is the case with this Chandos super-audio CD.

The Sinfonia of London under John Wilson succeed spectacularly in two of these three aims. The playing is virtuosic, making, if anything, Respighi’s trilogy of showpieces sound almost too easy. No passage is too difficult – listen to the glittering opening of the “Pines of the Villa Borghese” from Pines of Rome, where each rhythmic pattern fits together like pieces of a mosaic. The brass are secure throughout the album, never leading the listener to worry a passage will be muddy or its high notes botched. Their articulations are precise, no matter the speed (try the repeated-note trumpet passages throughout the aforementioned “Pines of the Villa Borghese”). In quiet music, such as the “Pines of the Janiculum,” the solo clarinet achieves an almost superhuman level of dynamic control, floating its hushed tone on a cushion of air, never letting large melodic leaps break the lyrical line.

The recording quality is stupendous. It is clear enough for the listener to catch every detail – from the piano and harp glissando at the end of the “Pines of the Villa Borghese” to the entrance of the organ at the climax of the “Pines of the Appian Way.” There is even a moment of reverberation after the orchestral cut-off, allowing the sound of the organ to linger for an unmistakable moment, highlighting its contribution. The intensity of the big moments, like the conclusion of “Circuses” from Roman Festivals, for example, is physically palpable as percussion and brass vibrate the listener’s bones.

The problem is interpretation. As spectacular as the Sinfonia of London’s playing is, its very perfection draws attention to the defects of the overall conception. John Wilson’s conducting is utterly professional but never inspired. That is, the performances are straightforward readings of each work, with even moments of rubato and nuances of dynamics or tempo sounding workmanlike. Each is there because it is supposed to be there, not because conductor or orchestra felt the urgency or inspiration to place them here and not there or vice versa. This is most noticeable in slow movements, such as the opening and closing of the Fountains of Rome. The recording captures every tinkle of bells and rich line of string harmony for the listener but the music seems to plod along stiffly and metronomically, as if trying to reach a destination rather than enjoying its journey. Swifter tempos do not help. In the pilgrim’s approach of Roman Festival’s “The Jubilee” or the instrumental Gregorian chant of the “Pines Near a Catacomb,” what was perhaps intended as a foretaste of the excitement to come feels hurried along.

Competition in the Roman trilogy is fierce. There are many excellent recordings, from Muti with the Philadelphia Orchestra (EMI, now Warner) to Ozawa with the Boston Symphony (Deutsche Grammophon) and Dutoit with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (Decca). Reiner and the Chicago Symphony (RCA) never recorded Roman Festivals but their Pines and Fountains are classic performances. More recently, John Neschling and the São Paulo Orchestra released a super-audio version of the trilogy on BIS. Compared to Wilson, Muti offers similar levels of excitement but in harsh sound, while Dutoit has beauty of sound but lacks the bared-teeth quality of execution. Both Reiner and Ozawa drip with atmosphere in the reflective moments – Wilson sounds perfunctory in comparison – and offer plenty of virtuosity in the rest, although the sonics of neither recording are as clear or detailed as this new Chandos release. Neschling has the best recording of the competition and is a shade more deliberate in his interpretation than Wilson, no bad thing.

Critics of Respighi’s showpieces claim they are all style and no substance, all surface and no depth. If this reflects your views, buyer beware. This performance reveals nothing more than what is on its surface – but what a surface it is! If a glittering sheen appeals to you, go for it and enjoy.

Christopher Little

Previous reviews: John Quinn (Recommended) ~ Nick Barnard (Recording of the Month) ~ Brian Wilson (Retrospective Summer 2020)

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