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spring 2000

Jesus Lopez-Cobos talks about Respighi

Telarc have recently released a fourth album of works by Respighi conducted by Jesus Lopez-Cobos (reviewed on page 3). This new CD includes Metamorphoseon which has, until now, only been recorded once. The other two items are the more familiar Fountains of Rome and Pines of Rome. Ian Lace began his interview by asking Maestro Lopez-Cobos how he had first come to discover the music of Respighi and how he rated him as a composer?

J.L-C.: I discovered him in the 1960s in Italy. I was studying there in the summer while I was a student in Vienna. Madame [Elsa] Respighi came and spoke about her husband and that was the first time I encountered his works. I always felt from my first discovery of his music that he was a first-rate composer.

I.L.: What would you say to those commentators who continually disparage his music?

J.L-C.: Of course, I know that many people say that because he was not a symphonic composer, he was not among the

great composers. But it was never a tradition in Italy to compose symphonies. It is not necessarily true that one has to be a symphonic composer to be a great composer. There are also Ravel, Debussy and many others.

I.L.: Would you like to offer an opinion and comment about the worth of Italian non-operatic music of Respighi and say Martucci?

J.L-C.: Of course, the tradition in Italy was opera. Consequently, Italian opera overshadowed the work of other Italian composers of the 19th and 20th centuries who deserved much more attention. Because of the operatic tradition in Italy, Italian composers became much more talented in bringing out the colours in orchestral music. You always observe in their music an inclination to imitate the human voice. This is especially the case with Martucci and Respighi.

I.L.: Generally speaking, what opportunities and challenges does the music of Respighi present to conductors?

J.L-C: Respighi’s music offers a wonderful opportunity to find, in Italian music, a composer, in the 20th century, who combines the old Italian music with 20th century technique. He takes the harmonies and contrappunto of old Italian music - of old pieces that relate to Gregorian Chant and 16th and 17th century music - and combines them with the orchestration of the 20th century. For a conductor, it’s always a challenge to find the right balance, and in Respighi’s music one can.

I.L.: Gratifyingly, you have chosen to record so far unusual Respighi as well as the more popular works. You coupled, for instance, La Boutique Fantasque with the Rachmaninov-Respighi Cinq Etudes-Tableaux (on Telarc CD-80396). How much do you consider La Boutique Fantasque to be a Respighi work or is it merely a pastiche of Rossini? There is some disagreement about how much it can be considered ‘original’ and how much it is just an arrangement? What attracted you to the Rachmaninov-Respighi work?

J. L-C.: I worried that many people thought Respighi wrote only the three symphonic poems: Fountains of Rome, Pines of Rome and Roman Festivals. So it was good to have a chance to make recordings of so many of the other wonderful pieces he wrote. Being the first-rate orchestrator he was, it was normal that he also tried to do orchestrations such as the Rossini Boutique Fantasque or the Rachmaninov. It does not matter to me how much is considered "original." Respighi was faithful to the original. For him it was a marvellous opportunity to make a wonderful display of orchestration. In the Rachmaninov-Respighi Cinq Etudes, the very extended palette of colours of the piano was almost an invitation for orchestration. The fact that Rachmaninov himself was choosing pieces for Respighi to orchestrate proves that these pieces were waiting for an orchestra.

I.L. Another of your Respighi albums comprised: Church Windows, Roman Festivals and Brazilian Impressions (Telarc CD-80356). There is considerable disdain poured upon Roman Festivals (and to a certain extent on Church Windows), especially "Circus Maximus." How would you argue against this disparagement? Do you think that the three parts of Brazilian Impressions (originally intended to be five, but Respighi did not have time to finish the remaining two) are valuable in their own right or just another example of Respighi’s "lightweight" works upon which his reputation still appears to rest?

J.L-C.: I think Roman Festivals, and the Pines of Rome and Brazilian Impressions, are all wonderful paintings that bring out the character of all these different places. Whether Brazilian Impressions is in three parts or five parts, it doesn’t matter. The result is what matters. Respighi brought out all the colour and the atmosphere of Brazil in these Impressions.

I.L.: Would you like to make any comment about Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances which you recorded on Telarc CD-80309 together with Trittico Botticelliano?

J.L-C.: This is the first work of Respighi that I conducted. l have made two recordings of it: with the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra on the Telarc label, and with the London Philharmonic on Decca. It was a piece I was most drawn to in my young years. As a choral conductor, I did a lot of polyphony and 16th century music. So this piece was very appealing to me from the very beginning. Trittico Botticelliano is, in my opinion, one of his finest works.

I.L.: Your latest recording comprises: Pines and Fountains, and Metamorphoseon. Have you experienced any fresh insights into Pines or Fountains from your pre-recording preparations? What is your opinion of Metamorphoseon?

J.L-C.: We have performed the Pines of Rome in different locations, and in Cincinnati, and so we were already very familiar with the piece, so I cannot say there were "fresh insights." I think these works are always a challenge for every recording engineer. The acoustics are so important and always a challenge too. We have the right hall in Music Hall to record this kind of music; a hall where a big orchestra comes across very well. Because of its size and the acoustics, you hear the big sound. I think Metamorphoseon is a very underrated work. I’m very surprised that this is only the second recording. It is really a concerto for orchestra. Serge Koussevitzky commissioned Metamorphoseon for the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra with the idea of having Respighi write a virtuosic piece for a virtuosic orchestra. It has seven big solos. Metamorphoseon really corresponds to the true character of Respighi’s music. It is in the tradition of Gregorian Chant-based music and displays the artistry of the big instrumentation of 20th century orchestrators. Only, it is abstract music and it is classical in form, and has a theme with 12 variations.

Interviewer: Ian Lace


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