Ottorino Respighi


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The Conductor's View of THE ROMAN TONE POEMS

Mark Chivers talks to Yan Pascal Tortelier

Respighi Society member, and musician, Mark Chivers, attended a rehearsal for a concert in which all three Roman tone poems of Respighi were to be played by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Yan Pascal Tortelier. The concert was held in Manchester at the old Free Trade Hall in 1996. During a break in the rehearsals Mark talked to Yan Pascal Tortelier about these works.

Mark Chivers (M.C.): "I enjoyed your recording of these works with the Philharmonia (Chandos CHAN 8989) very much. What is your opinion of them?

Yan Pascal Tortelier (Y.P.T).: "I am convinced of their qualities. There is so much more to Respighi's Roman tone poems than people assume. The imagination is quite extraordinary -in harmony and chromatics as well as the orchestration that everybody admires."

M.C. : "The received opinion about these works is that the orchestration is fantastic but that's about all there is to them."

Y.P.T.: "You could say the same about the Bolero yet without a striking tune (32 bars!) and rhythm it wouldn't be the most played piece of orchestral music and the same applies to these Respighi works - for instance, the colours are undeniably brilliant. The chromatic writing in Pines, in the Janiculum movement, for instance, is one of the highlights in the whole story of chromaticism, especially at Figure 14 in the score. There is striking bi-tonality here, that, on paper, should not work but it does - it's magic. Notice, too, how Respighi progresses this beautiful movement forward by little chromatic steps, a truly brilliant conception - terribly sensuous and very personal!

"As far as Feste Romane is concerned the colour of the writing is very vivid and of course many consider it to be OTT. In "Circenses", especially, they are quick to say that the music gets out of control. Well, of course it does, because the events that it portrays have got out of control - i.e. the horrendous sufferings of the early Christians in ancient Rome!"

M.C.: "Yes, critics often forget this point and they pour scorn on this movement. I remember one of them commenting that this music is very bad Stravinsky."

Y P T "Maybe one wants to make comparisons but, really, whatever has Stravinsky got to do with "Circenses"? Of course, Respighi's music is not the same as Stravinsky's; Respighi writes differently, almost photographically - it is almost intolerably realistic - you only have to listen to the final paroxysm where you can imagine the Roman population just screaming with both excitement and horror as they see the Christians gored and eaten by the wild beasts before them in the arena. But all that apart, to achieve such startling effects, Respighi uses a really inspired mix of sophisticated orchestration, chromaticism, harmony and powerful driving rhythms. And talking of rhythm, Respighi's usage here can rival Stravinsky - not many composers have used rhythm in acceleration like he does in this movement - its very effective.

"Moving on to "Il Giubileo", Respighi uses plainchant, as he also does in the second, "Pini presso una catacomba" movement of Pines of Rome. He uses a distinctive rhythmical pattern to portray the procession of pilgrims, and to build up a sense of ecstatic devotion. You have the plainchant superimposed over this basic rhythmic pulse in both movements but I think it is more effective in Pines. The shapes Respighi achieves provide subtle changes in character and build-up so that you sense a feeling of great elation and ecstasy when the pilgrims reach the summit of the hill at their journey's end and they see Rome spread out before them. The music speeds up and becomes ecstatic accordingly. It is very cleverly done; everybody's playing the same lines at different speeds in different rhythmical patterns all contributing to make this huge, monumental sound. Then they hear the bells of all the churches, so imaginatively conceived in tone that you imagine them ringing in every corner of the Eternal City."

M.C.: "Ravel and Respighi were generally considered to be the foremost orchestrators of the early twentieth century. How do you view Respighi's approach to orchestration as opposed to Ravel's?

Y.P.T.: "Of course Respighi's orchestration is a feature in his tone poems. In Ravel's works it is a feature too but it is more organic. In Richard Strauss's work it is even more organic; his approach to orchestration was very different - and he achieved very different colours.

I always feel that orchestration is perfect when it is self-evident - when you don't even think about it. With Strauss it's more in the way the orchestration is spread out often doubled; but with Ravel this is rarely so - but they are both fabulous orchestrators. Respighi uses all the techniques at his disposal to achieve his special colour palette.

M.C.: "After Roman Festivals, Respighi said publicly that that was as far as he could go with large scale works orchestration."

Y.P.T.: "Returning to Feste Romane and coming to "L'Ottobrata", there is the wonderful evocation where Respighi uses horns and trumpets so tellingly before the entry of the sleigh bells (Figures 16-17 in the score). The whole ensemble is sheer magic. The tempi of this music must be very well judged to allow the very fast playing of the violins (its virtuoso string writing) to be as effective and articulate as possible (Figure 18). Then the violins serenade us -so magical, very Pavarotti - and so Italian! The interesting thing is that the tonalities, the harmonies shift so subtly and beguilingly in this passage - it's very sensuous. Special attention to dynamics and rhythm is so important to achieve the right atmosphere particularly where the lower strings chug along beneath the texture. The inclusion of the mandolin is so seductive. I like to think of it as an extra element and not as part of the orchestra. I like to place the mandolin away from the orchestra for instance on a balcony - for one performance I asked the player to walk down through the orchestra and sit on the edge of the platform like a troubadour. Here again, at this point, the harmonies are just irresistible. Surely, Respighi has never written anything more sensuous. From here to the end of the movement the music moves very much in the same way as in the Janiculum movement of Pines with the same freedom, subtlety of colours, beautiful harmonies and modulations; but there are traps for the unwary conductor and attention needs to be paid to the markings in the score to completely achieve what Respighi intended.

"Finally, we come to the exuberant, almost orgiastic last movement, "La Befana", which is much more varied and satisfying musically than the March at the end of Pines. The pace is excited and frenetic throughout and there are problems of ensemble for instance where you have patterns of repeated chords that need good coordination between woodwinds and strings at Figure 40. What is essential is that the line of the strings must be played with a tremendous elan and with a feeling of real excitement, again there should be that feeling of Pavarotti. Then, after all the accelerated frenzy, you must have the courage to break the tempo and make the music very steady at Figure 46, actually I choose to forget the 120 instruction and just remember the sostenuto. The orchestra love this movement for everybody is terribly busy; everybody has something exciting to play. This movement really is an amazing kaleidoscope of folk tunes put together and treated with extraordinary orchestral virtuosity.

M.C.: "It is a very rare occurrence to hear all three Respighi Roman tone poems played together. In fact I am only aware of it being done by an amateur orchestra in the North East of England; I think your performance will be the first by any professional ensemble."

Y.P.T.: "It will be a considerable challenge for the trilogy puts great demands on an orchestra. Chronologically speaking, we know that the order is Fontane, Pini and Feste but when I listened to a recording of them in this order, with the huge tuttis of the March at the end of Pini leading straight into more of the same sort of music with the heavy perorations of Circenses in Feste, I knew it would not work in this order for such a concert. I therefore thought of the trilogy as a large-scale three movement work and to achieve a more musically satisfying evening I resolved to change the order in which they were played so that the gentler music of the Fountains separated the more outgoing music of the other works; so the sequence will be: Pini, Fontane and Feste. This is much more satisfactory and as I said the "La Befana" ending of Festivals is a fitting climax and conclusion to the whole trilogy."

(Yan Pascal Tortelier has recorded all three of Respighi `s Roman Tone Poems on CHANDOS CHAN8989.Mark Chivers is a professionai freelance viola player with the Halle, Opera North and other orchestras in the North West of England. Mark's love of Respighi developed from a study he made, while at university, of the composer's life and music.)

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