RESPIGHI Pines of Rome. Fountains of Rome. Metamorphoseon Modi XII. Cincinnati SO/Lopez-Cobos (Telarc) – INKPOT
Pines of Rome
Fountains of Rome
Metamorphoseon Modi XII
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Jesús López-Cobos
Jesús López-Cobos and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra continue their exploration of the lush orchestral music of Respighi with offerings here of two of his most popular works and a considerably less well-known effort. Indeed, with the majority of Respighi’s music sparsely played and recorded, there are always new discoveries to be made for this underrated composer.
Ottorino Respighi (right) was not always such an obscure character; indeed, he was one of the highly regarded Italian composers of his day, alongside Ildebrando Pizzetti, Riccardo Zandonai, Aleco Toni and Gennaro Napoli – ironically, names which are virtually unknown to the general concert public today. It speaks volumes of Respighi’s creative stature among his contemporaries that his name, among many, is the only one we remember today.
The Eternal City, of course, has served as an inspiration for composers throughout history, not the least of which include Mendelssohn, Berlioz and Richard Strauss. But no music comes quite as close as Respighi’s in its intensity and florid musical vocabulary as Respighi’s “Roman Trilogy”: The Fountains of Rome, The Pines of Rome and Roman Festivals.
The first two of these luminous tone poems have been recorded on this album, starting with the Pines, in which four locations of pine trees and their immediate surroundings are sonically described. The Pines of the Villa Borghese start off the disc in spectacular fashion, with Telarc’s legendary recording prowess giving the orchestral sound full presence. The winds paint a vivid picture of the playing children (with a delightful Italian parody of Ring around the Rosy) and the brassy fanfares are simply sumptuous.
Pines near a Catacomb, one senses, is more catacomb than pine. With López-Cobos meditatively creating an atmosphere of inevitability with a sepulchral echo of chant, a la Mussorgsky’s dialogue with dead bones in another memorable tone-painting, the music is impressively built up into a stupendous crescendo. No less beautifully evoked is the soundscape of the Pines of the Janiculum, with the full moon over Giancolo’s Hill – a park in Rome – deftly woven with strands of clarinet solo and a luminous wash of ephemeral orchestral sound.
The last movement, Pines of the Appian Way, starts as an imperceptible pianissimo, gradually and relentlessly unfolding to reveal an outstanding battery of brasses and percussion, loud but not overblown, heralding the procession of the Consul’s army. On the whole, the Pines is quite impressively done; from time to time, I did, however, find the brittleness of the quieter moments somewhat suspect; Respighi’s quiet moodscapes definitely require more sensitivity than they get here.
The Fountains, another quartet of geographical man-made objects in (or around) Rome, is equally absorbing. In López-Cobos’s hands, the Fountain of Valle Giulia at dawn is as expressive as any, and the symphonic ensemble at the Triton Fountain at morn is luxuriant. But the best has been saved for the Fountain of Trevi at midday – a total explosion of monstrous sound from Telarc’s top drawer of demonstration-class sound.
Left: The Fountain of Trevi,
from this Fountains of Rome website.
The balance, admittedly, is agogic, in favour of the heavy instruments; the high woodwinds are all but vapourized in this orgy of noise. I’ll say this: demolition companies could save a lot of money on dynamite by just buying the best and loudest sound system they can afford, aiming the speakers at stone quarries or buildings or whatever and playing this track, and reducing the hardest rock and concrete to a pile of quivering jelly. I’m imagining mushroom clouds here. The Sunset at the Villa Medici Fountain sees some amends made to the other sections of the orchestra, with lovely birdcalls of flutes and sunsets of violin bringing the work to a close.
The rather more obscure Metamorphoseon Modi XII – a symphonic theme and set of twelve variations – was originally commissioned by the Boston Symphony for its fiftieth anniversary in 1929. Respighi himself had conducted the symphony on several occasions and knew the players well, writing each of the variations to showcase their respective abilities.
López-Cobos adopts a severe Andante moderato right from the opening thematic statement, drawing a sense of brooding from the players: this is not a work, you sense, which you want to meet in a dark alley after midnight. From here, a dozen variants are developed, much after the fashion of Elgar’s exposition on Enigma. The Tchaikovsky Serenade-like Modus II is played with much poetry, incorporating (again) huge sweeping fortissimos; by contrast, Modus III is an even gloomier descent into the dark psyche of this music.
The seventh variation, with its dramatic cadenzas for various instruments, does seem excessive in its self-indulgence, even if this is a rare occasion where so many players have the opportunity to take a solo spot for themselves. The continuation of the variations proper with Modus VIII seems almost like a fresh breath of air when it finally arrives. The last two Moda are predictably exuberant and rousing.
If it’s too much of a good thing, this reading of the Metamorphoseon errs on the side of over-emphasis and stridency, rarely relaxing to allow a certain level of ebb and flow in the music: not a problem if you like your music well-done, for there aren’t many light passages in this work, but one can also see why orchestras today haven’t returned to this one as much as they have the three big symphonic poems.
Telarc’s fetish with the subsonic bass frequencies continue, with the balance unevenly so. This, of course, means that the winds and strings tend to get obliberated in the really loud passages – that is, if your speakers haven’t exploded first – which, I suspect, some audiophile readers secretly enjoy anyway. More significantly, however, is the loss of inner detail amidst this huge wave of sound.
But this is on the whole a splendid issue, and the most satisfactory of the López-Cobos-Cincinnati Symphony Respighi series to date. López-Cobos knows where he’s going with the music and the symphony responds with devastating effect. Despite some reservations about the heart-worn-on-sleeve moments, there is still much to appreciate and enjoy here.
BENJAMIN CHEE visited two of the four Respighi fountains many years ago. He didn’t throw coins in any of them, and to this day has not yet revisited them.
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