Respighi in Concert - the 1990s
by Charlie Niven
When was the last time you attended a concert featuring a work by Respighi? The chances are that if you live outside the USA that it will have been some time ago. Generally there was an increase in interest in Respighi during 1986, the 50th anniversary of his death. This may have led to more performances in Europe even in Italy where 'political' bias can often have more influence on what gets played rather than musical merit.
In Britain the number of performances and different works performed over the last ten years has been fairly minimal. In 1988 the Edinburgh International Festival had Italy as its major theme and there were performances of Pines of Rome (National Youth Orchestra of Scotland) and Cinque Liriche featuring Anna Steiger and Roger Vignoles. Occasionally, since that time, there have been performances of one work from the Roman Trilogy as part of the Fringe music programme, again performed by a youth orchestra. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra also gave a performance of Ancient Airs and Dances Suite I.
Again Scotland has been fortunate in that the Royal Scottish National Orchestra have recently had at least one of Respighi's works in their Winter Season programme. In January 1997 there were two works in one evening: the rarely heard Cinques Etudes-Tableaux, Respighi's orchestral transcriptions of five of Rachmaninov's
piano studies and Trittico Botticelliano. However it was during the mid 1990s that British concert audiences probably had the best opportunity to here Respighi 'live'. In the 1993-94 season two orchestras put on programmes featuring all three Roman Symphonic Poems in the same concert. The Newcastle Symphony Orchestra, an amateur group, conducted by Neil Thomson gave the first ever performance of all three works together in November 1993 in the King's Hall, Newcastle University. The BBC Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Yan Pascal Tortelier performed The Fountains of Rome, Roman Festivals and The Pines of Rome in March 1994 at Manchester's Free Trade Hall. Having attended both concerts I would have to say that although individually these works are always very enjoyable to hear, when played one after another, the overall effect is less than the sum of the parts. The feeling was that each work somehow became a movement of (a poorly constructed) larger symphonic work made up of all three symphonic poems.
The BBC Philharmonic, having been commissioned to record a large number of Respighi's works for Chandos Records, had also been due to play the Belfagor Overture the following season but was prevented by Ted Downes's poor eyesight. The mid-90s also saw the World Premieres of two works: Humoreske and Leggenda for violin and orchestra. Originally scheduled to take place in Berlin's Schauspielhaus with Andrea Cappelletti as soloist, these were first publicly performed in St. John's Smith Square
London in June 1994 with the Orchestra of St. John's and Francesco Manara soloist. Why this should have been the case is puzzling since only one other work had previously been premiered in London (La Boutique Fantasque). Respighi never came to Britain whereas he had lived in Berlin and he wrote Leggenda there in 1902. Other London venues which regularly feature some Respighi works include the Wigmore Hall which has featured the Violin Sonata and Concerto Gregoriano and the Royal Albert Hall where two or three performances of either Pines or Fountains at the BBC Promenade Concerts took place. The first appearance by the Orchestra of the Academy of Santa Cecilia in 1995 was subsequently broadcast on BBC television with a short piece on Respighi in Rome. A few months later the
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra also conducted by Daniele Gatti played both Pines and Fountains at a Barbican concert. The two works were played and interpreted as very different pieces; the performances were as brilliant as you would expect from the best young Italian conductor of the last decade of the 20th Century. Despite these occasional outings Respighi does not have a regular place in the concert programmes of either the top London orchestras or venues unlike in the USA where his music still features regularly in the programmes of the New York Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony and major cities. Perhaps this in part due to the fact that most of his orchestral works after 1922 were premiered in America and that his music was championed by conductors there- not only Toscanini in New York but also Reiner in Cincinnati and Chicago and Koussevitski in Boston.
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