It is good to see Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936) gaining traction in both recordings and performances. At the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, in November, there will be a staging of two of Respighi's operas, Maria egiziaca, and La Bella dormente nel bosco, an incredibly rare opportunity to hear (and see) these pieces.
Alessandro Crudele, who we covered recently in Britten and Elgar, is the perfect conductor for Respighi. He understands the music's big-boned, almost cinematographic aspect, but also takes it deeply seriously.
Here's a promo video for this release, on Linn Records:
Listen to how the London Philharmonic responds to Crudele in the glistening first movement of one of Respighi's most famous pieces, Pini di Roma (Pines of Rome). Here, as described in the composers own programme note, children are playing in the pine groves, dancing in circles, they play at being soldiers ... they shriek like swallows at dusk and disappear in swarms:
Crudele captures the darkness of the very different “Pini presso uni catacombs” (Pine Trees near a Catacomb), where shadows of pine trees fall over the entrance to a catacomb. A chant rises from the depths ... the chameleon LPO responds perfectly to the multiplicity of shades of this music:
Most impressive, to me at least, is the nocturnal, the third movement, “I Pini di Gianicolo,” made even more special via some truly beautiful clarinet solos by LPO clarinettist Benjamin Mellefont. The pine trees stand outlined against a full moon. A nightingale sings:
That's a truly lovely performance, the LPO at their very best. Finally, “I pini della Via Appia,” a misty Appian Way. The music depicts the scene of a thousand steps, while the music muses on ancient glories, of the trumpets of Roman armies returning in triumph:
The remaining two works on the disc are less well-known. Resisting the impulse to include the fountains as well as the pines of Rome, Linn instead offer the Impression brasiiane, the result of a trip to Brazil made by the composer and his wife in 1927. The Suite dates from the next year, 1928. It begins in elusive fashion, with a night in the tropics (“Notte tropicale”). South American rhythms fight to emerge from the mist, slowly, ever so slowly, evolving:
At nearly 11 minutes, the music has plenty of time to expand, and does. he second movement, “Butantan,” is a rare piece of music inspired by lizards, venomous snakes, spiders and scorpions. It was inspired by a visit to the Butantan Institute in São Paolo, Brazil:
No missing the “Dies Irae” in that movement either. The bright Latin lights appear to banish any shadows (and cobwebs!) in the finale, “Canzone e Danza” (I wonder whether Copland took anything from this movement, too?!):
Finally, a rarity: Belkis, regina di Saba (Belkis, Queen of Saba), one of Respighi's last big works. This is a ballet (in seven scenes) scored for huge orchestra plus narrator, chorus and off-stage band. We have four orchestral movements here, extracted by the composer in the form of a Suite. No doubting that the first movement, with its Impressionist scoring and harmonies, depicts a dream. The dream of Solomon, in fact, before the ceremonial pomp of the arrival of the King himself:
The blissful, evocative “La Danza di Belkis all'aurora” (The Dance of Belkis at Dawn) is simply beautiful, flute solos peppered with celesta:
A dance of war contrasts hugely, percussion decidedly militant at the opening, brass glowering, accents pounding, a test of any recording (and how well the Linn stands up!). It is the shortest movement, but its terseness is highly effective:
Finally, “Danza orgiastia” (it is what it sounds like), which also served as the ballet's closing pages. The music swirls in Orientalist fashion (think Rimsky and Scheherazade!) with a break for a superb trumpet solo (Paul Beniston):
So by all means come for the pines, but stay for a trip to Brazil, and to meet Queen Belkis. Remarkably alive performances, carefully sculpted, brilliantly played.
At the time of writing, this disc is discounted by 10% at Amazon at the link below: