Respighi: Roman Trilogy (SACD Review)

Fontane di Roma, Pini di Roma, Feste Romane. John Wilson, Sinfonia of London. Chandos CHSA 5261.

By Karl W. Nehring

Respighi’s “Roman Trilogy” consists of The Fountains of Rome (1914-16), The Pines of Rome (1923-24), and Roman Festivals (1928). The three works combined take about an hour to perform, so with the advent of the CD era, they were often bundled together, as they are here. Of the three, the Pines and Fountains are probably the more popular, and in the LP era, they were often recorded together, one work per side of vinyl. What we have here on this Chandos SACD release is the entire trilogy, performed by the Sinfonia of London under the direction of John Wilson.

Unless you happen to follow the British music scene, you may never have ever heard of the Sinfonia of London, which is not one of the established London orchestras such as the London Symphony, London Philharmonic, or the similarly-named London Sinfonietta. Rather, the Sinfonia of London is a pickup orchestra that assembles for specific recording or concert performances. Originally assembled in the 1950s to record film scores (a lucrative source of income for orchestral musicians) it is now in its third incarnation, which was assembled under conductor Wilson in 2018 to undertake recording projects. Its members include musicians from the more well-known London orchestras as well as some skilled chamber musicians and soloists. Wilson and the orchestra have thus far released three recordings for Chandos, the previous two being music by Korngold and a disc of French music titled Escales, which was reviewed by JJP (https://classicalcandor.blogspot.com/2020/03/escales-french-orchestral-works-sacd.html).

The end result of the efforts of the orchestra, conductor, and engineering team is a disc that makes Respighi’s music sound exciting indeed. The program opens with Roman Festivals, which is generally regarded as the musically weakest but most aurally spectacular of the three compositions. As noted musicologist and author Nigel Simeone observes in his liner notes, “Feste Romana was composed in 1928, completing the trilogy and adding a new dimension to it: there is a sharper edge to the orchestration and more dissonance in the harmonies… The orchestra is even larger than in Fontane and Pini, including a vast array of percussion as well as organ, four-hand piano, and mandolin. In the programme for the first performance, Respighi was quoted as saying that Feste Romane ‘represents the maximum of orchestral sonority and colour’ in his scores, and he is not exaggerating… It may be the least known of the Roman Triptych, but Feste Romane is probably the most audacious of the three: undoubtedly extravagant and even uproarious, it is also an astonishing demonstration of Respighi’s inventiveness.” Without embarrassment, Wilson and his forces play this music for all it is worth, with both the performance and the sound communicating an energetic sense of revelry with unabashed enthusiasm and panache.

Next on the program is the first-composed of the trilogy, The Fountains of Rome. Although not as spectacular in scope as the Festivals, it is still quite a colorful composition. Although today it is an accepted part of the orchestral repertory, there are still some music lovers who seem to consider it something of a second-tier piece. No, it is not as profound as Bruckner or Mahler, but it is certainly fun to hear. Once again, Wilson and his merry band play it with gusto, bringing energy and excitement to the score.

The program closes with what has become Respighi’s most well-known and well-loved composition, the Pines of Rome. Arturo Toscanini was an early advocate of the Pines, conducting its American premier in January, 1926, in his debut concert as director of the New York Philharmonic. He often performed it in concert over the next three decades and eventually recording it with the NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1953. It has been recorded many times by many conductors and orchestras over the years, with well over 100 recordings available. (By the way, I plan to do an overview of some noteworthy recordings in a future installment – but no, it will not cover anywhere near 100!) As you might expect, Wilson and his orchestra also bring energy and enthusiasm to bear in their performance, which sparkles with color that is well-captured by the Chandos engineering headed up by veteran soundman Ralph Couzens. Although my favorite of all Pines recordings that I have auditioned remains the 1959 effort by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony on RCA, this version need not hang its head in shame. It is a good one.

So, all things considered, how does this recording of the Roman Trilogy stack up against other versions? Obviously (at least to me), I have not heard them all, but I have auditioned and owned some very good ones. I would put this new Chandos version right up there with the best I have heard. It is well-played and well-recorded. Allow me to quickly compare it to two other versions (please note that I am talking now about recordings of the trilogy, not of just the Pines, which I plan to discuss in a future installment). One of my favorite recordings has been that by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra conducted by Lorin Maazel (Sony Classical SK 66843). The performance is not as energetic as that by Wilson, but the recording is more natural-sounding, giving a more distant, more comfortable perspective. My other favorite is a recording that is not nearly as widely known, Respighi Complete Orchestral Music Volume 1 by the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma conducted by Francesco La Vecchia (Brilliant Classics 2CD 94392). Their performance is warmer and softer, especially in the quieter passages, with recording quality to match. All in all, this new Chandos SACD is an excellent recording that is well worth an audition by classical music fans, even those who already own other recordings. Wilson and his players bring in-your-face energy and excitement to this music that is remarkable to hear.

Bonus Recommendations: As we head into 2021, I thought it might be appropriate to look back at some of my favorite classical recordings of 2020. As JJP said in his favorites list (https://classicalcandor.blogspot.com/2021/01/favorite-classical-recordings-of-2020.html), I am not claiming that these are the “best” recordings of the year; rather, they are some that I particularly enjoyed about which I would just like to pass along some quick thoughts. I had planned to do 10, but could not quite constrain myself to that number. At any rate, here goes: 

Bach: Works and Reworks. Vikingur Olafsson, piano. Deutsche Grammophon 4837769. With Works clocking in at more than 77 minutes and Reworks at more than 44, richly informative liner notes, and splendid recording quality throughout, this release is a must-have for Bach lovers and a splendid introduction to those who may be just getting into “classical” music.

https://classicalcandor.blogspot.com/2020/03/bach-works-and-reworks-cd-review.html

Beethoven: Revolution: Symphonies 1-5. Jordi Savall, Le Concert des Nations. Alia Vox AVSA9937. The planning, preparation, and passion that Savall, his players, the recording engineer, and the Alia Vox staff who produced the meticulously conceived and beautifully executed physical package (one of the finest I have ever run across) have brought to this project have resulted in a Beethoven box that excels in every way. This is reference-quality Beethoven, no doubt about it.

https://classicalcandor.blogspot.com/2020/12/beethoven-revolution-symphonies-1-5.html

Clyne: Dance; Elgar: Cello Concerto. Inbal Segev, cello; Marin Alsop, London Philharmonic Orchestra. AVIE AV2419. Although the cello is pushed too far forward in the Clyne (better in the Elgar), my enthusiasm for both the music and the performances leads me to give this new release from AVIE a highly enthusiastic recommendation.

https://classicalcandor.blogspot.com/2020/08/clyne-dance-cd-review.html

Clyne: Mythologies. Marin Alsop, Sakari Oramo, Andrew Litton, André de Ridder (conductors), BBC Symphony Orchestra; Jennifer Koh, violin; Irene Buckley, voice. AVIE AV2434. This is a wonderful recording of music by a composer who deserves wider recognition. I fervently hope that even more recordings of music by Ms. Clyne will be forthcoming, as she has a vivid imagination and a wondrous talent for orchestration. Brava!

https://classicalcandor.blogspot.com/2021/01/clyne-mythologies-cd-review.html

Dalbavie: La source d’un regard; Oboe Concerto; Flute Concerto; Cello Concerto. Ludovic Morlot, Seattle Symphony; DeMarre McGill, flute; Mary Lynch, oboe; Jay Campbell, cello. Seattle Symphony Media SSM022. Interesting new music, excellent recorded sound, helpful liner notes, and a generous length of nearly 73 minutes.

https://classicalcandor.blogspot.com/2020/01/dalbavie-la-source-dun-regard-cd-review.html

Debussy-Rameau: Vikingur Olafsson, piano. Deutsche Grammophon 479 7701. Vikingur once again provides an extensive liner note essay on the music that is fascinating and enlightening. The artwork and layout of the included booklet are attractive and readable, even to “mature” eyes such as mine, and the CD is packed with nearly 80 minutes of music.

https://classicalcandor.blogspot.com/2020/04/debussy-rameau-cd-review.html

Esenvalds: Translations. Ethan Sperry, Portland State Chamber Choir; Charles Noble, viola; Marilyn de Oliveira, cello; David Walters, singing handbells; Joel Bluestone, vibraphone, glockenspiel, chimes; Florian Conzetti, vibraphone, suspended cymbal, bass drum. Naxos 8.574124. Not only is the program outstanding, but so is the production. The liner notes by conductor Sperry are helpful, lyrics are included, and the recorded program is nearly 70 minutes long. The musicians, engineers, production staff, and the folks at Naxos have all done themselves proud with this fine release. 

https://classicalcandor.blogspot.com/2020/06/esenvalds-translations-cd-review.html

Cyrillus Kreek: The Suspended Harp of Babel. Jaan-Eik Tulve, Vox Clamantis; Instrumental preludes and interludes by Marco and Angela Ambrosini (nyckelharpa) and Anna-Lüsa Eller (kennel). ECM New Series ECM 2620. The music, the performance, and the recorded sound combine to make The Suspended Harp of Babel an indescribably beautiful release. The informative liner notes with lyrics translated into English add to the overall quality of the production.

https://classicalcandor.blogspot.com/2020/05/cyrillus-kreek-suspended-harp-of-babel_20.html

Shostakovich: Cello Concertos. Alban Gerhardt, cello; Jukka-Pekka Saraste, WDR Sinfonieorchester. Hyperion CDA68340. My long-time favorite recording has been a 1990 RCA recording featuring cellist Natalia Gutman with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with conductor Yuri Temirkanov, but I have found this new Hyperion release to sound appreciably better, lacking the slight glare of the older recording, not to mention that Gerhardt’s playing is completely convincing.

https://classicalcandor.blogspot.com/2020/12/some-new-releases-cdsacd-mini-reviews.html

Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 5; Finzi: Concerto for Clarinet and Strings. Michael Collins (clarinet and conductor), Philharmonia Orchestra. BIS-2367. This new recording of the RVW Symphony No. 5 is a very worthy addition to a crowded field. In addition to the fine performance and sound, and added attraction of this release is the delightful Finzi Clarinet Concerto.

https://classicalcandor.blogspot.com/2020/09/vaughan-williams-symphony-no-5-sacd.html

Eric Whitacre: The Sacred Veil. Los Angeles Master Chorale; Grant Gershon, Artistic Director; Eric Whitacre, conductor; Lisa Edwards, piano; Jeffrey Zeigler, cello. Signum SIGCD630. A truly moving composition; moreover, the recorded sound is of such excellent quality that the listener is not likely to really even think about it. The music is just there, sounding utterly natural and unstrained. This is a magnificent CD that I cannot recommend too highly.

https://classicalcandor.blogspot.com/2020/10/eric-whitacre-sacred-veil-cd-review.html

KWN

To listen to a brief excerpt from the Respighi 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.

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. --John J. Puccio

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Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@gmail.com

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa