Respighi: Roman Trilogy (CD review)

Roman Festivals; Fountains of Rome; Pines of Rome. JoAnn Falletta, Buffalo Philharmonic. Naxos 8.574013.

Here's an interesting observation to begin: In this day and age when due to financial concerns most of the world's great orchestras find it difficult to produce many recordings (and when they do, they're most often live performances), the Buffalo Philharmonic under the guidance of conductor JoAnn Falletta continues to turn out a stream of excellent performances with the Naxos label. What have they discovered up there in Buffalo that most everybody else is missing? I dunno. But we should not look a gift horse (or buffalo) in the mouth; we're lucky that Ms. Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic are as good as they are.

Anyway, the Italian composer, violinist, and musicologist Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936) is probably best known today for his trio of lavishly orchestrated tone poems describing various famous places in Italy, the three works on this disc now known as the "Roman Trilogy." Of course, he wrote quite a lot more, but these three pieces so overshadow the others, the lesser works tend to get forgotten.

Even though Respighi wrote the Fountains of Rome first (1917), Ms. Falletta has chosen to open the agenda with the Feste roman ("Roman Festivals") the last of the trilogy, which Respighi wrote in 1928. For me these are the least-successful parts of the trilogy. Respighi appears to have been trying to outdo himself in the work, and the music becomes more than a little hectic and bombastic as a result. I can only assume Ms. Falletta begins the show with it because it's so brash, and it acts as a sort of overture or curtain-raiser. The music is about as loud and forward as it can be, yet even so Ms. Falletta finds her way to make it all seem more meaningful than it really is, being especially careful to cultivate a refined attitude throughout.

Next, we get the Fountains of Rome (1916), the work that started it all and containing some of the more festive, colorful, and descriptive of the tone poems. Each of the four movements describes a celebrated fountain in Rome, the music, as in the other works, playing without a break. We hear noises of the country, noises of the city, noises of mystical creatures, and noises of crowds, among many other things, the music finally fading away into silence as night falls.

JoAnn Falletta
Ms. Falletta carefully draws out the morning beauty of the opening "Fountain of Valle Guilia at Dawn." It's never too rushed and the contrasts in light and shadow are nicely accentuated. The "Triton Fountain" fairly bursts forth, although, again, not overly dramatically so. Ms. Falletta contains herself, never vulgarizing the music and, thus, making it all the more effective. She takes "The Trivi Fountain at Midday" at a triumphant gait, and she manages the closing "Villa Medici Fountain at Sunset" in a solemn yet stately manner.

The disc's program ends with possibly Respighi's most-popular work, the Pines of Rome ((1924). It opens with a big splash of color in "The Pines of the Villa Borghese," which Ms. Falletta treats in suitably bright, flamboyant fashion, while never trivializing or debasing it. The second movement, "Pines Near a Catacomb," is initially bleak until Respighi opens it up to a more sincere melancholy and finally a kind of regal dirge. Ms. Falletta maintains each of the varying moods without the piece sounding routine or overstaying its welcome. After that, she makes the third movement, the "Juniculum" pines, with its song of the nightingale, as sweetly appealing as any I've heard, the atmosphere easygoing and composed. It is a prelude, really, to the big finale, the "Pines of the Appian Way," maybe the single most-famous thing Respighi ever wrote. The march of ancient Roman soldiers as they return home in triumph along the Appian Way interrupts the tranquility of Nature and the chirping of birds (yes, Respighi left instructions for real bird sounds here). Ms. Falletta maintains a strong control of the march tempo as the steps of the soldiers get increasingly more pronounced and more insistent. It's a splendid production all the way around.

Producer and engineer Tim Handley recorded the music at Kleinhans Music Hall, Buffalo, New York in May and June 2018. Starting with the "Roman Festivals" was not only a good curtain raiser, it was a good way to show off the disc's sound. This is one of the most well-rounded sounding recordings I think I've ever heard from Naxos. The sound is well spread out across the speakers; and it's very dynamic and wide ranging. There is a solid bass response present that most engineers are content to dampen for fear, I suppose, of offending some listeners (or blowing up their speakers or earbuds). Although the sound gets a little muddled in the loudest passages, the impact, depth, and clarity are impressive. This is sound worthy of Respighi's music.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:


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Meet the Staff

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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

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.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

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.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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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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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa