Respighi: La Boutique Fantasque (SACD review)
People probably know Italian composer, conductor, and musical scholar Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936) best for his suites of tone poems, things like The Pines, Fountains, and Festivals of Rome, the Ancient Airs and Dances, and the Brazilian Impressions. Despite the popularity of his music, however, or perhaps because of it, many critics have disdained his work, calling it too lightweight, too immature, too bombastic, too theatrical, or some such rubbish. The fact is, his music perfectly describes moments or people or animals or events in ways to which almost any listener can relate. It's what good music is about.
First up on this disc is the ballet La Boutique Fantasque (The Magic Toy Shop), which Respighi wrote for a 1919 première by Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. The composer based much of the music on pieces previously written for piano by fellow countryman Gioachino Rossini. There is plenty of showy color in its forty-five minutes of running time as it tells the semi-comical story of two can-can dolls in a toy shop who come to life and refuse to have a pair of customers separate them. The music is as much fun as the story.
Maestro Marzio Conti and the Orchestra of the Teatro Massimo play the melodies in a most-delightful manner, never trying to make more of it than what there is. It's when conductors try to take Respighi's tunes too seriously, too weightily, that things begin to sound rather ponderous and overwrought. Here, Conti keeps the mood light and lets the music charm one in a natural, unforced way. The slower interludes, like the "Dance Cosaque" and the "Valse Lente," are fluid and airy, and the faster sections, like the "Tarantella" and "Galop," are vigorous and bracing.
Now, I'm not suggesting that La Boutique Fantasque is either high art or trifling cotton candy for the ears. It is neither. It is simply breezy ballet music meant to do nothing more than entertain, which it does with unqualified ease.
Accompanying La Boutique Fantasque is the little suite Gli Uccelli (The Birds). Again, Respighi uses music previously written by others to describe four kinds of birds: the dove, the hen, the nightingale, and the cuckoo. They are mostly whimsical representations of these feathered friends, meant to evoke a smile. Originally, Respighi intended them for a small ensemble, and while it may appear at first as if the Teatro Massimo Orchestra is a trifle too large a group to do justice to the delicacy of some of the music, Conti and his players bring it off nicely (although I admit to a small preference for the recording by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in this work).
CPO recorded both pieces in July, 2007, at the Teatro Massimo, Palermo, Italy, in multichannel SACD surround. Maybe that's why there is a very slightly foggy sound to the midrange when playing back the disc in its hybrid two-channel mode. Even so, it's hardly a noticeable or objectionable qualm, and the rest of the spectrum is exemplary, with crisp, sparkling highs, decent bass, and a wide front-channel spread. Add in some strong dynamics, good percussion work, a modest stage depth, and only the faintest background noise, and the result is a big, open, most-pleasing sonic landscape.
A closing note: I tried, unsuccessfully it seems, to read the booklet comments on Respighi and his works, but I found it pretty tough sledding. Maybe if you try, you'll have better luck than I did understanding just what the author was getting at.
William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer
Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.
The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.