Respighi: La Boutique Fantasque (SACD review)

Also, Gli Uccelli, suite. Marzio Conti, Orchestre Sinfonica del Teatro Massimo di Palermo. CPO 777 295-2.

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.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa