INKPOT#106: RESPIGHI Sinfonia Drammatica. Slovak PO/Nazareth (Naxos)
Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra
conducted by Daniel Nazareth
by Benjamin Chee
From this period, Berlioz’s exposition Grande traité d’instrumentation et d’orchestration modernes became the seminal work on the subject of orchestration. This was later followed by Rimsky-Korsakov’s Principles of Instrumentation.
In the latter dissertation, the Russian grand master stated uncompromisingly that his case study, the Capriccio Espagnol, was in its essence more of a brilliant instrumental colourama than anything else.
This quest for exotic and colourful effects led to an innovation of new ways of playing instruments, such as muted brass in Scheherazade and Till Eulenspiegel. New instruments were adapted from existing ones, or even invented outright, like the like the pedal clarinet in Schoenberg’s Funf Orchesterstücke, the tuned anvils, steerhorns and bass-tubas in Der Ring des Nibelungen, antique cymbals in Prélude à l’après midi d’une faune. By the time Respighi arrived on the scene, he asked for nothing less than a gramophone recording – even specifying the exact roll to be used – of a nightingale in The Pines of Rome.
It is also perhaps no coincidence that in this period saw the invention of the eponymous saxophone (Adolphe Sax) and the celeste (Auguste Mustel) – of which the latter Tchaikovsky immediately included in his Nutcracker because he was so taken with the sound of it.
Other composers tried to invent new instruments for specific uses, such as Wagner’s attempt to include a piper’s fanfare in the Third Act of Tristan and his subsequent failure to invent a new instrument just for this purpose. (Performances today usually make do with cor anglais or the Hungarian tarogato, which is a kind of wooden conical trumpet.)
Finally, the expansion of the orchestra also saw the redefinition of the conductor’s role. No longer merely someone just to beat time and hold everything together, the orchestra now became an organic unit which could be “played”. Tonal balance, phrasing, tempo, flexibility and an element of personality that makes “playing” into an interpretation became a conductor’s key responsibilities. One could say that it is from these orchestral developments that conductors today have become such highly esteemed artists, even celebrities, in their own right.
Ottorino Respighi, as the leading Italian composer of his generation has been indubiably associated with the symphonic poems collectively known as the Roman trilogy – the Pines of Rome, Fountains of Rome and the Roman Festival. To this may be added a collection of transcriptions and arrangements of various music by other composers, for Respighi had a mastery for orchestration which today has been largely eclipsed by his peers.
In a discipline where composers are so often glibly pigeonholed into categories and schools, Respighi is nigh untypable – which may account for his lack of popularity. Unlike other Italianate composers, he was susceptibly influenced by not just a single fountainhead but many: Russian nationalism (Rimsky-Korsakov), French “impressionism” (Ravel and Debussy) and the Teutonic symphonists (Bruch and Strauss). While he did draw on native influences, it was the culture of medieval Rome – the Eternal City – and not the modern one, which papably also gave rise to a host of medieval-related works.
The Sinfonia Drammatica, in fact, precedes almost all the abovementioned works, being written in 1914. While it contains unmistakable tributes to Strauss (can anyone say Eine Alpensinfonie), Mahler and Bruckner, it can also be regarded as one of Respighi’s early eclectisms – which perhaps explains the work’s relative unpopularity and obscurity. Juvenilia, it should be said, often turn up the neglected gems of a composer.
The similarities of the Sinfonia to the Straussian juggernauts is not just based on the extravagant conception of the work – the first movement alone is twenty-five minutes, and the second and third eighteen minutes each – but perhaps also in terms of orchestration and idiom. Listeners expecting the tautness of Respighi’s later tone poems will find a different aesthetic here: one which is more leisurely, more expansive, lulling the listener to excess in one mood before changing it refreshingly into something dissimilar.
There are various changes of mood and texture in the first movement alone, which the Slovak musicians elicit wonderfully under the baton of Daniel Nazareth. Nazareth is an unfamiliar name to me, I admit, but Naxos’s reputation for engaging obscure artistes who can deliver first-class results is well upheld here.
The first movement is truly absorbing melodrama of pure musica symphoniensis, with the apotheosis of the grand Elgarian theme at the end of the first movement something truly wonderful to behold. It uncannily foreshadows the procession of the Roman buccine along the Pines of the Via Appia.
The influence of French impressionist moodscapes in the second movement is nigh unmistakble, rich in perfumed lyricism and contemplation. While there is no explicit musical programme, the Sinfonia lives up to its adjectival name with unreserved development that allows the soundscape to blossom. Nazareth does not wrench out huge cathartic emotions here as much as he sculpts a mighty, opulent sound with soaring panache.
The final movement is chock-full of huge colourful swatches of sonic canvas, almost garish in its intensity, with the Slovak orchestra quite rousingly over-the-top. Nazareth doesn’t obstruct the work’s bombast, and neither does he get bogged down or overwhelmed by the admittedly towering grandeur of the music.
This is not to say that the music is not without aesthetic merit – certainly, one is left with impressions of a Niagara of noise – but rather, Respighi’s argument here seems to advance the concept of an aesthetic of music purely as craft: in which, if melodic inspiration strikes, so much the better; but if it doesn’t, then one keeps on going all the same anyway.
There isn’t any of the graphic evocation Respighi (left) would later become famous for in the Roman trilogy or Church Windows, nor even a hint of his fascination with medievalism a la Ancient Airs and Dances and Concerto Gregoriano. It is not even symphonic in the classical-romantic sense, or organic (as Franck or Scriabin are) – it is simply a titanic cromlech of the orchestra in its own right.
It is also interesting to note here that this recording was made way back in 1986, in the halcyon days of Naxos’s own gestative period, when the primary objective was to build up a huge but affordable repertoire of works to carve out a niche in the field of classical recordings.
Without knowing the full reasons for its delayed release until the current time, it can only be said here that its belated appearance finally provides a budget alternative to the current monopoly on Chandos (CHAN 9213, BBC PO/Downes).
Some listeners will be reluctant to get the symphony just for its own sake, provided here without any fillers – even though it is a substantial work – but it is fair to mention in sheer terms of the price of this album and the quality of the performance, the inclusion of fillers should be a secondary consideration, if not a foregone bonus. Nonetheless, there is much reward here for the intrepid.
In Singapore, Naxos discs can be found or ordered from Sing Discs (Raffles City), HMV (The Heeren, City Link) or Tower Records (Suntec City, Pacific Plaza).
Benjamin Chee considers that things could be worse. It could have been named Sinfonica Titanica: in which, one bad scrape would have sunk the whole piece. (And given rise to some bad puns.)
798: 6.11..2000 ©Benjamin Chee
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