Respighi: Pines and Fountains of Rome (HQCD review)

Charles Munch, New Philharmonia Orchestra. HDTT HQCD268.

Listeners today probably know Maestro Charles Munch best for his RCA recordings with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which he led from 1949 to 1962. Regardless, he made numerous recordings with other orchestras, among them several for Decca in the late Sixties. HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) remastered the present disc from a Decca/London Phase-4 recording Munch made with the New Philharmonia Orchestra in 1967. Munch was as good as ever, but the Phase-4 processing brings with it its usual advantages and disadvantages.

The HDTT remaster contains two of Italian musician, teacher, and composer Ottorino Respighi’s (1879-1936) most-celebrated works, the Pines and Fountains of Rome. Respighi wrote them as a part of his Roman Trilogy after studying with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, which may have been where he got the idea for creating his pictorial material. Munch’s way with them is perhaps not so distinctive as that of Fritz Reiner in his Chicago Symphony recording (RCA or JVC) nor as smoothly sophisticated as that of Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony (Decca), but the performances are vigorous and colorful, nevertheless.

Although Respighi wrote the Fountains of Rome first (1917), the Pines of Rome (1924) starts the program, possibly because it’s the most-popular work Respighi ever composed. Munch opens “The Pines of the Villa Borghese” with a huge splash of color, which sounds rather fierce but soon enough settles into an appropriately solemn but never gloomy tone for “The Pines Near a Catacomb.” After that, the third-movement “Pines of the Janiculum” (a hill in Rome, once the center of the Janus cult) remains in Munch’s hands a peaceful nocturne, beautifully serene and complete with its familiar nightingale at the end. Respighi’s big finale, “The Pines of the Appian Way,” may be the single most-famous thing Respighi ever wrote. The movement provides the scene for ancient Roman soldiers returning to Rome along the Appian Way, the sounds of their marching footsteps interrupting the stillness of the setting. Munch develops it nicely, building a reasonably strong sense of drama and excitement until the music reaches its climax. The performance is perhaps not so graphic or high-powered as those of Riccardo Muti (EMI) or the aforementioned Reiner, but it’s effective, nonetheless.

The Fountains of Rome sounds more festive to me than the Pines, more colorful, more descriptive, and less ostentatious. Each of the four movements describes a well-known fountain in Rome. As we progress through a day in the city, we hear noises of the country, noises of the city, noises of mystical creatures, and noises of crowds, among many other things, the music at last receding into silence as night falls.

The town awakes with “The Fountain of Valle Giulia at Dawn,” one of Munch’s best spots in the program. There is an appealingly quiet yet cheery feeling about it. “The Triton Fountain in the Morning” energizes the town and the listener, Munch giving it an extra brilliance. “The Trevi Fountain at Noon” is just as grand and impressive as we expect it to be. Then, “The Fountain of the Villa Medici at Sunset” completes the show, with Munch communicating the sun going down with utmost tranquility and only a tinge of melancholy as the day closes.

The Decca engineers recorded the music at Kingsway Hall in 1967, utilizing their controversial Phase-4 recording process. Decca started using Phase-4 in 1961, a system that took multi-miking to the extreme and directed signals to ten and twenty-channel consoles before being mixed down to two-channel stereo. In terms of classical orchestral music, the sonic results ranged from flat, bright, and compartmentalized to spectacularly clear and dynamic (although often in a gimmicky, “hi-fi” manner, with whole sections of the orchestra coming to life and then fading away, occasionally provoking a hole-in-the-middle effect). Because the folks at HDTT work from original, commercially available tapes and LPs, neither adding nor subtracting anything (except in the case of a little discreet noise reduction), their remastering of the Pines and Fountains illustrates most of the benefits and liabilities of the process.

Let me put it this way: Listeners will either love or hate the sound of the album. There’s not a lot of room for opinions in between. Let’s start with the disc’s high points: As with HDTT’s other remasterings, this one retains the original recording’s wide dynamic range and impact. There is also very low distortion involved, with clean transients throughout. And the all-important midrange displays a commendable naturalness, smoothness, warmth, and transparency.

Be that as it may, there are downsides. The top end is pretty hot, especially noticeable at the beginning of “The Pines of the Villa Borghese,” which highlights every high-end percussion instrument in the orchestra. That said, the highs are quite clean, so while they may sound forward or bright, they are not harsh or grating. We also hear a sectioning-off of the sound, at times one or the other speaker falling almost silent. The Decca engineers didn’t appear to treat the center of the orchestra too well, either. In addition, and somewhat surprising, Decca’s engineers failed to capture all the bass they could have and made no attempt to replicate any sense of orchestral depth.

Finally, there are only some forty-odd minutes of content on the disc, which may seem short measure. Keep in mind, however, that that’s all Decca provided on the original recording, so it’s all HDTT provide as well. Besides, it may be a blessing in disguise not getting the most-common coupling, the third part of the trilogy, The Roman Festivals, they’re such bombastic pieces.

For further information about the various formats, configurations, and prices of HDTT products, you can visit their Web site at

To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here:



  1. Hi. This may seem like a stupid question, but who do I ask? Looks like you're it. I am sure that I heard Respighi's Nightingale in a WWII movie made in the 1960s, where it was used to very good effect. The Allies had been through very heavy battle, many losses, a very brutal extended siege. Then on a morning, comes a turn in the war. Nightingale is used for that turn. I think that the front may have been Italy, or maybe the Battle of the Bulge, but I can't remember the name of the movie. When I started listening to classical music again a couple of years ago, I recognized that beautiful song, having heard it in a WWII movie, but no one knows, and I can't even rent movies and play them until I find it. Would you happen to know which movie this was? I want to know primarily so that I will know it wasn't an invented memory, & that I did actually see this film!

  2. Sorry, can't help you there. You might Google a few terms. Are you sure it's Respighi's nightingale? Stravinsky also wrote about them in "The Song of the Nightingale."


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Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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 Jon 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.
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For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

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I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

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