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METAMORPHOSEON - MODI XII - Theme and Variations for Orchestra (1930)

Sybil Pentith analyses Respighi’s composition

The first clue to the instrumentation is given in the dedication at the front of the score - ‘in honour of the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’. It was commissioned by Serge Koussevitsky for this occasion along with other works which included Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. The second clue is in the naming of ten players in the liner notes who have important solo passages in this new recording by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jesus Lopez-Cobos. This work has been described elsewhere as a concerto for orchestra, or showpiece, disguised in the form of variations. It is in fact a tribute to a band that Respighi had conducted more than once, and whose individual players had left an aural impression of their particular skills and tone quality.

The title, Metamorphoseon, implies magical changes. These are to be found in the twelve variations, numbered ‘Modus I -XII’ The word ‘mode’ in this instance is used instead of the more usual ‘variation’ and is confusing at first, as the theme sounds convincingly archaic, as if it had escaped from the more familiar Roman catacomb. It is introduced by the strings in the dark key of B flat minor, with the bass line doubled by bassoons and contra bassoon. An answering melody played by a solo clarinet, is derived from the stepwise movement found in the opening theme. A faster middle section introduces a new melodic and rhythmic idea in the lower strings, before returning to the slower tread of the beginning.

Modus I is not very much longer than the theme itself and makes use of the step-wise idea played by the strings at the conclusion of the theme. This serves as a murmuring accompaniment to flutes and clarinets in unison, then comes a sudden outburst by the full orchestra with a drum pounding the beat in Brahmsian fashion, until it tails off to return to gentle murmuring strings introducing an exposed passage for violins and solo cello, with wind accompanying above, the piccolo adds its own glitter to this passage.

Modus II is altogether different in character. Above a duet for viola and cor anglais the woodwind seem to be indulging in a game of snakes and ladders. The duet concludes and the wind are joined in their game by the rest of the orchestra, apart from the brass who endeavour to bring some solemnity into the proceedings. Eventually the violins wind down with a triplet figure that leads in to the violas who repeat the opening solo. This variation leads straight on without a break.

Modus III. Plangent middle string chords create a firm bass from which a solo oboe emerges to play a decorated version of the opening theme. The lower strings and woodwind interject with a rising and falling passage, leading to a solo from the clarinet, answered by the oboe, now assisted by the flute department. The clarinet continues to echo the oboe’s decorated solo. Horns add extra weight to the throbbing string chords while the violins take flight in tandem with the flute. Again this variation leads in immediately to the next

Modus IV starts slowly and expressively. The texture is significantly thicker, with many unison passages in low registers, concealing the simplicity of basic two part writing - melody and countermelody. A change of mood occurs as the speed increases and the pitch rises. The brass add to the excitement and the six loud crashes on the gong remind one of an English composer’s similar use of the orchestra in a recent reconstruction!.

Modus V changes the mood completely. Air is let into the orchestral sound. Gone is the thick sustained melody, now we have ideas passed around like mid-field play with inspired gestures from the clarinet aided by extra support from the glockenspiel. Respighi demonstrates here that his overall plan is to make us listen for these subtle changes.

Modus VI. Barely have we become used to the skittishness of Modus V when we are plunged into a full orchestral version of the second theme. It is stated in notes of long value in the bass while the outline can be picked out at the beginning of each bar of the counter theme heard above. The metre constantly changes from two to three in both these scherzo like variations.

Modus VII. Half- time over, play resumes with an unusual variation in which a series of soloists play cadenza-like passages one after another, over a pedal point provided by subdued brass or strings. This variation, marked, ‘Cadenza’, occupies that place in a conventional work for soloist and orchestra, but here the orchestra is providing the soloists for Respighi’s imaginative invention, as in the horn’s echo effect and the bassoon’s oriental sounding scale. This is the longest of all the variations and allows us to hear the clarinet and harp more than once, a real bonus.

Modus VIII returns to a more conventional use of the orchestra, and though starting and finishing lightly in bright major keys, there is a weightier middle section of only eight bars in length.

Modus IX. Muted strings playing the first theme enter slowly in imitative fashion, while the harp reminds us of the opening of the second theme. As expected, a tumultuous middle section follows; and when it has run its course, the strings return to the opening idea. Penetrating sounds from the harp add an extra emphasis to the conclusion in a major key.

Modus X, XI & XII are played without a break and form a finale. Modus X is memorable for its excursion into five time with some snappy exchanges between strings and brass. (For a moment I thought I was listening to an American symphony at that time not yet written) Modus XI now safely returned to regular four time, shows the orchestra displaying its skill in powerful upward flourishes leading to the coup de theatre in Modus XII when in a full orchestral tutti the theme is given out one last time with the brass shining through triumphantly accompanied by the organ. This ending in B flat major is the final transformation.

This is an interesting work that deserves to be better known. The question is how can this be achieved? Most Respighi devotees will already have recordings of the other two works on this CD, Pines of Rome and Fountains of Rome. An earlier recording by Chandos coupled it more sensibly with the suite from the ballet, Belkis, Queen of Sheba. Perhaps members of the Respighi society could request the BBC or Classic FM to play it on one of their numerous and useful request programmes?

Ian Lace compares the two versions available on CD:-

RESPIGHI Pines Of Rome; Fountains of Rome; Metamorphoseon Jesus Lopez-Cobos conducting the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra TELARC CD 80505

RESPIGHI Belkis, Queen of Sheba; Metamorphoseon Geoffrey Simon conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra CHANDOS CHAN 8405

Lopez-Cobos opts for a more restrained and classical approach than Simon and his tempi are consistently slower. Simon’s readings make the music sound more programmatic. Listening to his version of the Theme, I was irresistibly drawn to making comparisons with Miklos Rózsa in biblical epic mode. This is not to say that Lopez-Cobos lacks excitement. On the contrary, in the impassioned and tragic Modus IV with its fateful concluding tam-tam crashes, it is Lopez-Cobos who delivers the more emotionally charged reading while Simon favours the spectacular Cinemascope route. Modus VII (cadenza) is the centrepiece of the work, and at six to seven minutes duration, the most substantial. It consists entirely of accompanied cadenzas. The featured solo instruments (some making several appearances) are: harp, cello, violin, viola, horn, bassoon, flute, clarinet, oboe, and bass-clarinet. Both orchestras excel but Simon makes the variation sound, after the beautiful horn perspectives, languid and sensual. Both orchestras deliver a stupendous climax. The four short lighter versions (much of the work is sternly dramatic) are swift tempi, quicksilver creations with Simon investing more colour and character. Both versions are first class in their different ways. The Chandos disc also includes another rarely heard Respighi work, Belkis, Queen of Sheba and much more detailed notes by Edward Johnson. Yet some might regard Lopez-Cobos’ interpretation as closer to Respighi’s intention.

Ian Lace


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