RESPIGHI BBC RADIO 3’s COMPOSER OF THE WEEK
I confess to having been slightly apprehensive when,
the week after the appearance of Jeremy Siepmann’s article in BBC Music
Magazine [covered in our Winter 2000 newsletter, EDITOR], BBC Radio
3 featured Respighi as its composer of the week from January 17th to
21st, this year the third time in the last seven years.
I need not have worried. What better ‘trailer’ to the
main feature can there have been than Sir Edward Downes’s superb performance
of the ‘Ballad of the Gnomes’ with the BBC Philharmonic on Brian
Kay ‘s Sunday Morning? Kay is unfailingly enthusiastic about Respighi’s
music, and one has the luxury of comparing Downes’s quite blistering
recording with that of the equally exciting, but differently nuanced
version by our patron Geoffrey Simon and the Philharmonia on the Cala
Appetite whetted, I settled down to listen to the five
daily programmes on Respighi. The first was devoted in the main to Respighi’s
relationship with and indebtedness to his one time pupil, and occasional
mentor and later devoted wife Elsa. Theirs was a union which was indeed,
as Claudio Guastalla described it," a masterpiece".
On the occasions when I have heard Donald Macleod as
presenter of features on Respighi, notably as Composer of the Week in
1993, he has always struck me as very sympathetic and fair-minded in
his presentation, giving us a rounded portrait of Respighi the human
being as well as the composer. In this series he did not disappoint,
and Mussolini was hardly mentioned at all!
Some of the anecdotes about Respighi may be apocryphal,
but they reveal an endearing and, at times, almost childlike personality,
as when Macleod tells us how the young Respighi, something of a ladies’
man with the leonine Beethovenian profile his pupils commented on to
Elsa, once had to escape from a jealous rival by crawling along a window
ledge in the snow. It is clear that Elsa had to keep an eye on him,
notably in his relationship with the singer Chiarina Fino-Savio who
sang the soprano part at the first performance of Aretusa in
1911. His unworldliness comes out in his helplessness when making arrangements
for trips to the United States and elsewhere. The fact that when Elsa
bought the idyllic country retreat, ‘I Pini’, Respighi was so
unaware of the large sums his compositions had earned him that he asked
her how they could possibly afford it!
The first work in the series was Aretusa, the
one which moved Busoni to tears and which Respighi considered the first
to bear the stamp of his own distinct musical personality. Beautifully
sung and performed by Janet Baker with another of our patrons Richard
Hickox and the City of London Sinfonia, this lovely, ‘aqueous’ music
contains pre-echoes of the Fountains of Rome composed six years
How wonderful to hear, over 70 years after it was first
pressed on a Parlophone 78 in 1927, Elsa’s limpid mezzo voice singing
the early ‘Nebbie’ with Ottorino at the piano. Selling more than
300,000 copies, this could truly be described as a ‘smash hit’. Never
mind the crackling, enjoy the sound. Even when she was still a young
student of his, Respighi said that, unlike the others, "only Elsa
doesn’t give me any trouble". How right he was. She was, as Claudio
Guastalla said, his "daemon", by which he meant his good spirit.
Macleod did not ‘play safe’ in his series. How good
to hear the rarely performed Concerto in Modo Misolidio played
by Sonya Hanke on piano with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under Myer
Fredman. Respighi himself was the soloist at the world premiere at Carnegie
Hall in 1925 under the baton of a conductor he was to be closely associated
with, Willem Mengelberg. Did Respighi, who never had piano lessons except
from his father, have his tongue in his cheek when he claimed that this
difficult but fascinating work had been composed with his own standard
of non-professional playing in mind? Am I, incidentally, alone in detecting,
in a few passages, an almost American idiom recalling ‘Rhapsody in Blue’?
Respighi rated the work among his best. Another fruit of his American
odyssey and his association with Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge was the
Botticelli Triptych, sensitively played with all its Gregorian
echoes by I Solisti Veneti under Claudia Scimone. In his second programme,
Donald Macleod developed the theme of Respighi’s neo-Gregorian style,
his desire, as Elsa put it, "to re-cast those magnificent melodies,
and free them from the rigidly formal Catholic liturgy of the Roman
gradual". It was Elsa, his pupil, with a diploma in the study of
plainsong, who introduced Respighi to it, but it was her pupil who,
with his characteristic felicity, soon became the master.
The programme also dwelt on Respighi’s love of the
Italian musical past, and folk melodies - perhaps heard on his bicycle
tours round Italy as a young man. In recasting the music of the past
in a freely adapted and transcribed modern idiom, Respighi was in effect
striving after the creation of a paradox: "new old music".
And yet, in signing the manifesto with nine other composers
in 1932, Respighi declared himself against modernism in music. Here,
for the first time in the series, the name of Mussolini cropped up,
with dark reminders that the manifesto appeared "ten years after
Mussolini’s march on Rome in 1922". And yet, in quoting from the
manifesto, one can only ask first how many true artists, musical or
otherwise, would seriously disagree with the sentiments, and secondly:
what have they got to do with Mussolini anyway? "We are against
art which cannot, and does not have any human content, and desires merely
to be a mechanical demonstration of a cerebral puzzle. A logical chain
binds the past and the future: the Romanticism of yesterday will again
be the Romanticism of tomorrow."
The argument will no doubt continue to rage, but until
convincing and conclusive evidence is produced of Respighi’s ideological
and personal sympathy for Mussolini, beyond a certain apolitical and
reticent awe perhaps, this lingering smear can only leave a bad taste
in the mouth. Certainly, Respighi’s relationship with the Duce was considerably
less adoring than that of some contemporaries who seem to have escaped
this guilt by innuendo and association.
It was our patron again, Richard Hickox, who gave a
sprightly performance of the first Suite of the Ancient Airs with the
Sinfonia 21, and another patron, Geoffrey Simon, who conducted the glorious
‘Matins of St.Clare’, the third movement of Church Windows with
the Philharmonia, in one of the most sensuously beautiful renditions
I have ever heard. Why is this magical work not heard more often in
the concert hall? One assumes because of the cost of employing such
a huge orchestra. The same applies to the Belkis Suite (again
superbly performed by Simon and the Philharmonia in the last programme
of the series). No wonder a New York music critic went into raptures
after the first performance at La Scala, even comparing the orgiastic
scoring favourably with Stravinsky; sitars, wind machines and all.
The Gregorian theme was developed with Pierre Amoyal’s
impressive playing of the lovely Concerto Gregoriano’s last movement,
‘Allelujah’, with the French National Orchestra under Charles Dutoit.
I have always thought Dutoit’s conducting of Respighi among the very
best, and this feeling was reinforced by a quite stupendous performance
of the Feste Romane with the excellent Montreal Symphony Orchestra.
Elsa suggested that the reason the Concerto Gregoriano was coolly
received at its first performance, in 1922, was that the soloist Mario
Corti did not understand the music, nor did the audience. Respighi himself
thought it one of his best works.
Respighi’s association with the Americas, and in particular
New York and. Brazil, was vividly illustrated by performances of excerpts
from ‘The Pines’ by two different conductors, the complete Fountains
of Rome by Toscanini in a 1951 recording with the NBC Symphony,
and a quite matchless recording on Chandos of the Brazilian Impressions
under Geoffrey Simon and the Philharmonia. Donald Macleod included
many diverting anecdotes about Respighi’s relations with Toscanini,
Mengelberg, Claudio Guastalla and other contemporaries which enriched
our understanding of Respighi the man as well as the composer.
In his second conversation with Elsa of September 1978
in Venice, our President Adriano records that Toscanini may have had
a complex about not being a composer himself and resented Respighi’s
genius, "Come, come, Respighi, let’s go out, do share my success!",
he is reported to have said after the tumultuous reception of his performance
of the Pines at the Carnegie Hall in January 1926. Elsa says
that Toscanini’s recordings do not really transmit his charisma; you
had actually to attend a live performance. It is true that Toscanini’s
performances of both the Fountains in Milan in February 1918,
and the Pines in 1926, helped to consolidate their popularity, but his
recording of the Fountains, with the NBC in 1951, is not, even
allowing for its age, one of my favourites, and. does not match those
of Sargent, Tortelier or De Sabata, for example. One can only agree
with Malipiero, by no means an unqualified admirer of his compatriot:
"What does it mean to have style? It means to write the Fountains
of Rome. "
Donald Macleod played Charles Munch and the New Philharmonia’s
frankly turgid account of the ‘Pines of the Villa Borghese’-
I don’t think Respighi was ever Munch’s musical soul-mate - and an interesting,
live recording of the ‘Pines of the Via Appia’ by Sergiu Celibidache
in Stuttgart in 1976, with its, in my view, correct slow, measured marching
beat. Macleod anecdotes included some new to me, namely that in 1913
Respighi rather fell for one, or both of two blonde Lithuanian sisters
(nobody knew for certain which) who were, in fact, the
first to inspire him to compose a musical portrait
of the Fountains of Rome. Even more interesting were accounts
of Respighi’s rather idiosyncratic views on orchestral tempi, and his
(and Elsa’s) relations with conductors like Mengelberg and Karl Muck.
Adriano recounts Elsa’s ruse to induce Mengelberg to conduct the ‘Fountains’
at the right tempo-something Respighi himself, with his characteristic
diffidence, had not dared to do! Not for Respighi the confrontational
approach, especially not with Mengelberg.
Respighi had some surprising views for a composer;
he told his pupils that a work might actually come over better if the
players didn’t follow the composer’s instructions to the letter. They
might just discover something he’d never imagined. Respighi had a conviction
that it was nearly always counter-productive to tell an artist to modify
his interpretation. When Respighi attended a rehearsal of the Pines
un Hamburg by the celebrated, but irascible Karl Muck, he became increasingly
agitated at Muck’s funereal tempi, especially in the great march. Muck
replied that he had it on the authority of Caesar’ s commentaries that
the march tempo he chose was the correct one. When Respighi begged him
to follow the score and speed it up, which he did by 8 minutes, the
performance was much less well received, a fact Muck gleefully pointed
out to Respighi. After that, Respighi probably felt that his principle
of non-intervention was vindicated. His advice to speed up the tempi
had not led to a better performance.
Among all the composers of the past, it was Monteverdi
that Respighi loved best of all, and to him must go the credit for bringing
Monteverdi’s forgotten music back to life. The Bulgarian mezzo Burjana
Antonova gave a plaintive rendering of Lamento d’Arianna with
the Sofia Chamber Orchestra under Emil Tabakov; this was first performed
in 1908 by the great Arthur Nikisch and the Berlin Philharmonic. Indeed,
the premieres of Respighi’s works seem like a roll-call of the great
conductors of the twentieth century: Vaclav Talich, Mengelberg, Toscanini,
Koussevitzky. When they heard the ‘Lamento d’Arianna’, it was
the first time a contemporary audience had ever heard Monteverdi.
Elsa wrote that she had rarely seen her husband so
consumed by a work as by Monteverdi’s Orfeo. He wrote that he
aimed to give it symphonic treatment, not to imitate Monteverdi’s instrumentation.
Characteristically, he said that he did not want to treat it as an ‘archaeological’
piece, but to re-create the colour of Monteverdi’s music in a modern
idiom,’ depending on ‘intuition and feeling, disregarding cultural factors’.
The result is a triumphant example of the vibrant, brilliantly imaginative
‘new old music’ of which Respighi was the consummate master. We heard
a fine excerpt from Act 2 in a live open-air performance of 1984. by
the Lucca Chamber Orchestra under Herbert Handt. In between the two
Monteverdi arrangements, "free interpretations" as Respighi
called them, Macleod played excerpts from the comic opera Belfagor
with the Hungarian State Orchestra under Lamberto Gardelli, and the
charming musical fable La Bella Dormente nel Bosco (‘Sleeping
Beauty’) under the sympathetic baton of our President Adriano with the
Slovak Philharmonic Chorus and Slovak Symphony Orchestra. As the cast
were puppets, Respighi, exhausted by temperamental divas, could sigh
with relief: "What joy to have dealings with these characters who,
once the rehearsals were over, were put away in a box, and didn’t pester
you with their complaints and petty gossip". Respighi’s child-like
nature was ideally suited to this charming piece for children.
"A cathedral built of sound, an architecture divinely
perfect". Respighi could only have been talking about his revered
Bach. His powerful orchestration of Bach’ s Passacaglia in C minor,
was the fruit of yet another ‘request’, more like a command from Toscanini.
Unlike Stokowski, Respighi was not concerned with recreating the sound
of the organ, but gives the work the full-scale modern orchestral treatment.
It was a resounding success - "Passacaglia huge success",
cabled Toscanini, "Bravo Respighi!" It is given majestic treatment
by Pierre Monteux and the San Francisco Symphony. The work was to become
Monteux’s ‘calling card’.
It was one of his earliest teachers Luigi Torchi who
inspired Respighi’s love of the Italian musical past, and the suite
The Birds, beautifully played by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra,
is one of the best known fruits of this musical love affair. Nor was
it only the distant past which inspired him; his affection for Rossini
is well known, and La Boutique Fantasque is not the only example.
It was a pity that Donald Macleod only had time to fit in the finale,
played by Richard Bonynge and the National Philharmonic. Why, one asks
with incredulity, is the delightful Rossiniana, playful and dark
by turns, not heard more often?
The series ended with a resounding bang, not a whimper;
the performance of the Belkis Suite literally brought the house
down. Geoffrey Simon and the Philharmonia gave it all they had, and
more. The audience at the first performance worked themselves up into
a paroxysm of enthusiasm, and no wonder. This is music to match Strauss’s
‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ from Salome, and Simon’s stupendous
rendering ends in the orgiastic dance which provided a fitting climax
to the week’s series. I would be very surprised if it did not win Respighi
a number of new converts.
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