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