Ottorino Respighi

Charlie Niven reviews two new recordings of
Il tramonto

lyric poem for mezzo-soprano and orchestra

Respighi wrote Il tramonto, based on Shelley's poem "The Sunset" (translated into Italian by Roberto Ascoli), in 1914. The text describes a woman's memory of her dead lover and her subsequent life of endless mourning. Respighi originally wrote it for mezzo-soprano and string quartet; however it is in the version for mezzo-soprano and string orchestra (quartet plus double bass) that it more often appears to be performed. There is also a version for soloist accompanied by piano.

Two recordings of this work have recently been released: Brigitte Balleys with the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne conducted by Jesus López-Cobos on Claves CD 50-9807; and the other on a new Polish label Studio K2 which seems to be associated with Koch International. It features Ewa Podles with the Wroclawska Orkiestra Kameralna "Leopoldinum" (Wroclaw Chamber Orchestra) conducted by Michal Nesterowicz (Studio K2 SK2CD005). Ewa Podles is a renowned contralto, who has sung in many operas and won awards for recordings including Rossini's Tancredi.

Brigitte Balleys is a prize-winning Lieder singer of international reputation. In the Claves recording, she gives a highly convincing performance of this most passionate of Respighi's songs. Balleys has a certain sweetness in her voice which helps to bring out the femininity of the character she represents. She really seems to be able to express the depth of feeling required; her rendition includes some beautiful phrasing and well judged expressions of melancholy. The Orchestra, under the estimable Jesus López-Cobos, gives excellent support.

Another work is also featured on this recording: La Canzone dei Ricordi lyric poem for mezzo-soprano and orchestra by G. Martucci This work appears to be similar in content to Il tramonto, i.e. a woman recalling love from long ago; however, unlike in Respighi's work, the woman only dreams of what might have been not what actually happened. This work is a cycle of seven separate songs. Each song has its own theme in which Martucci depicts specific dreamed remembrances: a stream, a ship at sea, a wood and other, more ethereal, realms. He composed the cycle around 1887 to a text by Rocco Pagliara and he later orchestrated it in 1899. Balleys again uses the sweetness in her voice to good effect in the 'lighter' songs in the cycle. She also has control of the sadder, slower songs and again she injects the right amount of feminine angst, not over-drammatising her reading of the text. Both the soloist and orchestra keep well to the melodic line; the tempo of the songs alternates between con moto and andante/andantino. This is a very accessible performance and really grows on you after hearing it a few times. The insert provided with the CD includes the full text of both works in the original language and in translation.

The Studio K2 release is a very professionally presented CD unlike some others which have appeared from central and eastern Europe in recent years. It is good to see a Polish recording and it is also encouraging that this has been done under the patronage of the Italian Institute of Culture in Warsaw.

Ewa Podles is a contralto so since Il tramonto was written for mezzo, it is to be expected that the sound will be very different from other performances. The result is that the soloist's voice lends some gravity and perhaps a little ponderousness to the role; the limits of her range and pitch also appear to inhibit her interpretation. Her style is perhaps overly influenced by her operatic background; she brings her own ideas to both the textual expression and vocal style. She occasionally lacks the expressiveness which is absolutely necessary for the deeply felt emotions contained in the words and music of this work.

The recording by these Polish artists also includes Gli Uccelli and Trittico Botticelliano. The CD comes with a very glossy insert full of atmospheric photos; unfortunately the English text is poorly translated from Polish and it doesn't include the text of the song.

  Brigitte Balleys (photo taken by Etienne Salvi)

We contacted Brigitte Balleys and asked her about her interest in Respighi and Martucci. She very kindly sent us this contribution:-

"I discovered Respighi during my studies, thanks to my teacher, Jacob Stampill. I sang Il tramonto for my master diploma, accompanied by a string quartet (which is how I prefer it performed in fact).

"It was Eric Lavanchy, director of the music department of Espace 2, the French-Swiss classical radio station, based in Lausanne, who introduced me to Martucci's La canzona dei ricordi. He has always helped me to discover works that are not so well-known by the public, because his immense curiosity as far as music is concerned constantly leads him to extend his already vast repertoire.

"Throughout my career I've always been in contact with music close to the lied and song repertoire, because those who know me well realize that the literary quality of vocal works is of great importance to me.

"I don't have a particular penchant for Italian composers, apart from Monteverdi, who is, in fact, my favourite composer. It is easy to move from Martucci to Respighi because the prosodic and recitative sides of their works is very close. I would say that, following this idea, we can cross the frontier and make associations with Debussy and Maeterlinck, with a love of the text as a common denominator. This is true of both Martucci and Respighi; although it's a bit less obvious in the case of Martucci - it was still the 19th century - but he pursued the idea of the lied, which was not a preoccupation for Italian composers of that period. At the same time, Mahler was writing the Knabenwanderhorn", and Chausson his "Serres chaudes".

"There is just one problem, for me, with Martucci's La canzona dei ricordi, which is that the orchestration is not always clear, and tends to be somewhat heavy in places. This reminds me of Wagner's Wesendoncklieder. That's why I think a lyrical and not-too-light soprano lends itself better to this work than my voice does. But I agreed to take it on because sometimes I think one should try to go beyond one's usual limits, especially with such a lovely piece, and when there's no risk of damaging your voice because the conductor is careful not to push you too far. I really admire the recording of La canzona dei ricordi by Mirella Frenni because she's a remarkable artist with great warmth, sensitivity and discretion."

"I haven't recorded anything else by Respighi, but I am thinking of recording some songs and I already have all the scores."

[Readers might be interested to know that Claves have produced another excellent recording of Respighi's works to go with their previous releases of the oratorio Christus CD 50-9203 and the 'Works for violin and Orchestra' which includes the first recording of both Concerto all'antica and Concerto a Cinque CD 50-9017.]

Other recordings news and reviews

RESPIGHI Complete Songs for voice and piano Andrea Catzel (soprano); Leonardo de Lisi (tenor); Reinild Mees (piano) CHANNEL CLASSICS CCS 11998.

Splendidly expressive and confidant soprano Andrea Catzel joins Leonardo de Lisi and Reinild Mees (again delivering superb accompaniments) in this second volume of Respighi songs some of which are familiar but many more are little known. The programme includes: Six Songs (first collection); Six Melodies; Four Tuscany Popular Songs; and Two Songs in Dialect, together with a scattering of songs throughout including: "Storia breve"; "Nebbie"; and "Lagrime". I was particularly impressed with "Nevicata" (Snowfall) the piano part delicately evoking falling, twisting snowflakes while Catzel recalls, in mixed emotions, a past love against the peaceful blanched pastoral backdrop. She is nicely coquettish in the subtly amusing "Scherzo" (A Joke) in which she teases the listener about whether she has been kissed or merely touched by a breeze. In the lovely "Nebbie" (Fogs) she is powerfully dramatic and protesting as the piano intones a mechanical and repetitive tread. I would have preferred to hear her sing the darkly comic Tuscan song, "Razzolan, sopra l'aja le galline" (The chickens scratch about the farmyard). I believe she would have injected the necessary feminine scorn and spite in the countrywoman's admonishment of poor Luigi who can only stand and stare..."My little blond boy do not look at me so much, if God gave us eyes to see, He also made our mouths to speak." De Lisi looses too many expressive opportunities here I feel.

De Lisi's softly ardent tones are ideal, though, in the gentle flowing, almost fragrant, songs that he sings from the Six Songs - First collection. From this collection I was particularly struck with: "Serenata indiana" (The Indian Serenade), it is impressionistic, faintly erotic and its line has the appropriate ethnic inflections; by "Noël ancien" (Ancient Christmas) sung by Catzel over bell-like piano chords, at first, then as the Angel heralds the Nativity, the song takes on a hushed rapture over gently lilting lullaby piano rhythms; and by "Pioggia" (Rain) in which the piano part cleverly evokes driving rain and patterns of streaming water over the window pane. The singer (Catzel) seeks relief from the anguish of lost love against relentless rain rhythms. From the Six Melodies, De Lisi sings lustily of turbulance on the high seas while the piano suggests driving rain shredding sails and howling gales battering the ship in "In alto mare" (On the high seas); and in the beautiful "Soupir" (Sighs), De Lisi ardently swears constancy to a departed love. Finally I will mention another interesting song "E se un giorno tornasse" (And if he came back one day) which is in the form of a question and answer dialogue between two women, very successfully delineated in character by Catzel, discussing an (unfaithful?) man's anticipated reactions to his lover's possible death. The perfunctary piano part, often reduced to one revealing laconic chord, is both dramatic and wryly amusing. This CD is a must for all devoted Respighi admirers.

Ian Lace

RESPIGHI Pini di Roma; TCHAIKOVSKY Manfred Symphony B Minor

BBC Legends recording: BBCL 4007-2

One of the best live recording of the Pines of Rome has just been issued by the BBC. It is one of a set of their historic recordings and this one features Constantin Silvestri conducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in 1967. The sound is exceptionally clear; all the players can be heard individually and in groups. The brass sound is very prominent and one or two slips showed up rather clearly in the first section. Also I found that the tempo of the final section is slow. However, overall, it is such an excellent performance that even one the Gramophone's reviewers was impressed.

Charlie Niven

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