Known mainly for his three spectacular Roman tone poems, Respighi has attracted much adverse criticism. Ian Lace argues that most of his large and little known output is seriously undervaluedI know I shouldn't like his music; yet I have a sneaking regard for it....it is often just film music, vulgar.
This is typical of the sort of comment one would read in reviews of Respighi's music a few years ago. It was (and, to some extent, it still is) fashionable among "politically correct" musical opinion-makers to belittle and patronise Respighi's music.They considered it to be strident or derivative and accused Respighi of being just a pasticheur lacking a distinctive, personal style. Most damaging of all, he was accused of being a supporter of Mussolini.
The truth is that the shy and retiring Respighi was not interested in politics; he much preferred to be left alone to get on with his music. Yet he was condemned because his music was associated with the fascist cause.Even in 1979 his centenary celebrations met with Italian political opposition. It was only in 1986, on the 50th anniversary of his death, that the tide began to turn.
The Roman trilogy, that was mostly associated with Mussolini's regime, has, perhaps, attracted the fiercest criticism. In truth, the most ardent Respighi supporter might admit to some "purple" passages - in Roman Festivals in particular - but these are surely offset by the exquisite orchestration of the October Festival with its gentle, magical evocation of the hunt, tinkling horse bells and songs of love. And surely the Epiphany drunkard is more whimsically endearing than offensive?
Respighi was never short of champions. Many leading conductors were drawn to his music including Toscanini, Reiner, Dorati and Koussevitzky. Today's outpouring of recordings of his lesser known works: operas, concerti, tone poems, chamber and instrumental works, songs and pieces for voice and orchestra including such sublime settings of Shelley as La Sensitiva, radiantly recorded by Janet Baker, permits a less hysterical, fairer, more objective re-evaluation of Respighi's achievement. And it is significant.
Take the operas; they are often innovative and show impressive dramatic flair. Together, they demonstrate a considerable range and facility - from the ironic and, literally, devilish humour of Belfagor to the entrancing Labella dormente nel bosco (Sleeping Beauty) and the taut, intense tragedy of Lucrezia in which Respighi with a conventional-sized orchestra out-Strausses Richard Strauss in voluptuousness and electric charge.
Respighi's radiant orchestrations, arrangements and transcriptions of Bach, Frescobaldi, Tartini, Monteverdi, Vitali and Rossini (La BoutiqueFantasque) are always faithful to the spirit of the originals and often manifestly enhance them. Rachmaninov himself paid tribute to the composer's masterly skills when he commissioned Respighi to make an orchestral arrangement of his Etudes Tableaux for piano.
Respighi's deep love of ancient Italian and medieval church music not only focussed interest on these genres but it also inspired some of his most refined and appealing masterpieces like: Ancient Airs and Dances, The Birds, the Three Botticelli Pictures and the Concerto Gregoriano.
His reputation as a supreme master of the orchestra has never been disputed. Who else could so magically evoke sinister slitherings of serpents in Brazilian Impressions, the vivid colour and aroma of the hanging gardens of Babylon (Semirama) or the nocturnal perfumes of the Janiculum Pines?
Surely the time has come for a more informed, more enlightened assessment of Respighi - including a less snide and prejudiced entry in Groves - and a full biography.
© Ian Lace
The above article in an abbreviated form first appeared in Classic CD
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