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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
To listen to a brief excerpt from the Respighi album, click below: