Ottorino Respighi


Music Webmaster Len Mullenger:


A commentary by Charlie Niven

The Sonata per violino C pianoforte in Si minore P 110 was first performed in Bologna on 3rd March 1918 by Federico Sarti (violin) and Ottorino Respighi (piano).

The first CD I ever bought was a recording of Respighi's Sonata in B minor featuring Franco Gulli and Enrica Cavallo (Dynamic CDS 39). As ever, I was keen to collect recordings of as many of the Maestro's works as I could find. Having been 'brought up' on his well-known 'Roman' Symphonic Poems and, thanks to Adriano and Marco Polo Records, other orchestral works, it was somewhat of a shock to hear this composition. At first, I thought is this work really by the same composer?

Most listeners and musicians would probably associate Respighi with so-called impressionistic works or arrangements of Renaissance, Baroque and later composers. As it happened the Sonata was composed at the same time as Fontane di Roma and Antiche danze ed arie 1 (Ancient Airs and Dances) in 1916-17. The fact that Respighi could be writing these three very different types of composition together, itself reveals the range of his abilities.

Perhaps it was the fact that he was himself an excellent violinist and pianist (as well as violist) that allowed Respighi to write such a powerlul work. The piece is clearly rooted in the Romantic tradition, but the composer used none of the (Gregorian) modal themes which appeared in some of his later works and which are considered to be his hallmark He did, however, base the final movement on the old Italian form of a Passacaglia (ground bass and variations).

It is a large scale work which, at twenty five minutes, is on a par with his longer orchestral compositions. Since it is a chamber piece, its very size gives the work an added dimension. The way Respighi has crafted the music means that considerable virtuosity is required of both players. The interplay between the two instrumentalists is really the heart of the work and this requires soloists of equal standing. Perhaps this need explains the relative paucity of recordings; there have been only twenty recordings in the past fifty years and none prior to that.

The great violinist Jascha Heifetz championed the work and his 1950 recording with Emanuel Bay on RCA VICTOR Gold Seal is the most famous. Very few contemporary violinists have attempted a recording or given performances. As if to reinforce the point that when outstanding artists do get together to perform this work the result will be impressive, the recording with Kyung wha chung and Krystian Zimerman won the Gramophone Award for Chamber Music in 1989 now re-released at mid-price coupled with the Strauss violin sonata: DG 4579072  <buy here.>

In my own experience, I have been present on two occasions when the Sonata was heard by an audience. Most recently, I played the Heifetz recording to a small, but knowledgeable, audience who were not only surprised, as I had been, at such a 'mature' work but were also affected by the sheer power and lyricism of the music. The same can be said for those who attended a (very rare) live performance given by Lydia Mordkovitch and Julian Milford in March 1995 at the Royal Northern College of Music.

Ms Mordkovitch, who has previously won several awards for recordings of other works, had also recorded the Sonata with Clifford Benson for Chandos in 1994 (CHAN 9351) <buy here>. Let us hope that these and other artists will take up the challenge from Heifetz in continuing to promote this superb piece of music.

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