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Respighi orchestral CKD692
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Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936)
Pini di Roma P141 (1923-24)
Impressioni brasiliane (1928)
Belkis, regina di Saba (1932)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Alessandro Crudele
rec. 2021, Henry Wood Hall, London
LINN CKD692 [67]

This disc embodies the problems faced by artists and labels trying to find a niche in the congested marketplace for a new recording. Twenty years ago, certainly forty, I can imagine this disc being a contender for major industry awards. The recording itself has all the sophistication and range that you expect of this label – especially with veteran engineer Mike Hatch at the desk, the performances are never less than technically very fine indeed and the repertoire (if one roles the clock back to pre-CD days) pretty unusual. But today, with labels having mined just about all the musical seams available of the more famous composers and good engineering and exceptional orchestral playing more of a norm than ever before, you do wonder who will be choosing this disc as pre-eminent above all other available versions.

This disc is engineered in ‘standard’ CD format so even by that measure it is unable to raise itself above the competition. In recent years BIS has produced a series of Respighi discs under John Neschling that have been very well received – I must admit to being less impressed than some! – in pretty stunning SACD sound. All of the repertoire included here has been recorded by Neschling. Then in 2020 Chandos released John Wilson’s survey of the Roman Trilogy in pretty astounding SACD sound and dynamic performances – that disc made my “Recordings of the Year” list. Indeed that is the point – Respighi is such a colourful and attractive composer that his music lends itself to labels out to demonstrate the calibre of their engineering and artist roster.

Make no mistake, this is a well programmed, well conducted, well played and very well engineered disc but this is still not enough to get it into the champions league places. The programme is unique and intelligent as it showcases three distinct facets of Respighi’s musical character. Pini di Roma is just gorgeously pictorial – probably the most musically successful of the Rome triptych. Impressioni brasiliane is – as the title suggests – Respighi at his most impressionistic and although he still deploys a substantial orchestra, the impact on the listener is more about refinement and orchestral colour. In contrast, the suite from Belkis, regina di Saba is the composer at this most gaudily theatrical – this is the kind of score used by the prosecution when accusing Respighi of being a noisy and shallow composer. Those nay-sayers are not wrong – but it is a glorious score all Cecile B DeMille goes to the ballet. Now if Crudele and LINN had had the courage of their convictions to produce a disc of this complete ballet, that would have had collectors and reviewers lining up to hear it.

But instead, there remains a sense of repertoire cherry-picking to create a disc that will in all probability leave the potential buyer considering which music to duplicate and whether the individual performances offered here supplant existing ones. The answer to the latter question is simply no. Pini di Roma that opens the disc is a case in point. Mike Hatch’s recording is wonderfully detailed and true. Respighi’s boisterous orchestration is naturally caught whether in full flood or gentle reverie. There are several quite beautiful solos taken by the LPO principals but somehow the result all feels just too well-mannered and contained. The louder dynamics especially rarely excite in the way they do in other performances. Alessandro Crudele’s conducting is always judicious but rarely inspirational. A couple of examples; in the second movement Pini presso una catacomb Respighi writes a wonderfully atmospheric solo for trumpet played over ethereal string accompaniment. Respighi marks the solo line f ma dolce e espressivo but with the additional instruction “il più lontano possible” [as distant as possible]. By my judgement the trumpet plays gorgeously but not a full f and certainly not as distant as could be. Then at the end of the same movement when the orchestra seems to be intoning some ancient prayer for the dead Respighi introduces the organ pedals – here they are present but without anything like the weighty omnipotence they surely require. Wilson on Chandos has a very distant trumpeter and suitably awe-inspiring organ pedals. The closing movement – I pini della via Appia – evokes the irresistible might of the Roman Legions. Crudele chooses a suitably trudging tempo although other conductors; Svetlanov in Sweden, Sinopoli in New York and Mata in Dallas to name but three are even more implacably mighty. Crudele’s full organ is again disappointingly reticent – something of which Wilson – just a tad faster than Crudele could never be accused. The third movement I pini del Gianicolo contains some quite beautiful and atmospheric playing with the “novelty” of the recorded nightingale perfectly balanced in a distant grove. Indeed throughout this performance I cannot fault any individual aspect of it however in total it remains a relatively straight forward rather than revelatory interpretation.
Much the same can be said of the following Impressioni brasiliane. I must admit that this work does not appeal to me as much as many or indeed most of Respighi’s other major orchestral scores. The work marks a visit Respighi made with his wife to Brazil in 1927. As mentioned this is the composer at his most impressionistic – indeed the very opening of the first movement – Notte tropicale – sounds remarkably similar in style and atmosphere to Ravel’s Prélude à la nuit from his Rapsodie Espagnol. This is by far the longest of the three movements – part of the issue with the work is its formal imbalance with this opening the equal in length of the other two movements. Here Crudele conjures a suitably languorous nocturnal mood – quite a bit slower than Geoffrey Simon with the Philharmonia on a Chandos disc that still sounds very fine despite its near 40 year age. Mata in Dallas is very similar to Crudele. I rather like Jesús López-Cobos with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra on Telarc in this movement. No surprise that it is very well recorded but the faster basic tempo allows the music to sway in a dreamy intoxicated state. Beside that Crudele is just sleepy not seductive. The second movement Butantan celebrates a visit by the Respighis to an institute of that name which contained a celebrated collection of venomous snakes and spiders. This accounts for both the sinuous main theme and the quirky shudderingly skeletal presentation of the Dies Irae towards the movement’s end. The closing Canzona e Danza contains the only music that makes any real allusion to the Latin American location for the work. Here Crudele is again very poised and almost genteel. I find Dorati’s old account on Mercury with the LSO sounds its age in both this work but especially the Pines but in fact the edge and primary colours of the recording serves this movement better than Crudele’s elegant care.
The opening movement of the suite drawn from the ballet Belkis, regina di Saba titled Il sogno di Salomone is again the longest part of the four movement selection. Crudele’s tempo sits him in the middle of the range of recordings – quicker than Simon on Chandos or Sasha Goetzel with the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra but slower than Oue in Minnesota on Reference. This Reference disc includes a fine I pini as well all presented in Reference’s high standard engineering. Perhaps Oue is a little faceless at times compared with bigger personalities on the podium but it is a fine programme overall. Crudele draws some beautifully hushed playing from the LPO strings. The following La danza di Belkis all’aurora is another sinuous movement inflected with faux Orientalisms and pentatonic melodies. Both Simon and Oue choose tempi that flow a little more than Crudele but no to a degree that majorly impacts the mood of the music. Returning to the 1985 Chandos/Simon disc it is hard not to be impressed with the sheer technical quality of that disc which matches most if not all of the more recent recordings. In direct comparison Simon’s drums and brass at the opening of the third movement Danza guerresca have significantly more bite and impact than the new LINN disc. This music – and the concluding Danza orgiastic – represent Respighi at his most muscular and dynamic. These are characteristics that are present on this new disc but not overbearingly so. Of course, managing those aspects of these scores may well appeal to some listeners who would otherwise find this music simply too testosterone-fuelled. Of course there is always the question about how this type of music reflected the ethos of the ruling fascist party under Mussolini and indeed that association may well account for the neglect of the score until the Chandos recording in the mid-80’s. Again, direct comparison between versions shows that this new performance is very well played and engineered but lacking that extra degree of bite, energy and dynamism that other versions bring.
The disc is presented in a fold-out cardboard digipak with the disc tucked into the right hand side – so tightly that it is hard not to grip the playing surface to remove it – and the liner tucked into the left. The liner itself is tri-lingual English/German/French and includes a good note by Nigel Simeone, a conductor biography and an orchestral player list. No-one buying this disc will be disappointed by the music or its presentation but in each instance pre-existing versions are certainly preferable.
Nick Barnard

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