Respighi: Ancient Airs and Dances (CD review)

Also, Concerto all’antica. David Alongna, violin; Salvatore Di Vittorio, Chamber Orchestra of New York. Naxos 8.573901.

By John J. Puccio

Italian composer and violinist Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936) is probably best known for his trilogy of tone-poem suites The Pines, Fountains, and Festivals of Rome. However, coming close on their heels is his Ancient Airs and Dances, here presented on a Naxos CD by Maestro Salvatore Di Vittorio and the Chamber Orchestra of New York.

Respighi wrote three suites of Ancient Airs and Dances (1917, 1923, and 1931), the music freely adapted from original sixteenth-century pieces for lute. He based the first suite on various Renaissance works by Simone Molinaro, Vincenzo Galilei, and a few other anonymous composers. He based the second suite on works for lute, archlute, and viol by Fabritio Caroso, Jean-Baptiste Besard, Bernardo Gianoncelli, an anonymous composer, and an aria attributed to Marin Mersenne. The third suite Respighi based on lute and guitar works by Besard, Ludovico Roncalli, Santino Garsi da Parma, and a few other anonymous composers. This last suite differs from the previous ones in being slightly sadder than the others.

My own touchstone for these works has long been the 1958 stereo recording by Antal Dorati and the Philharmonia Hungarica, now on a remastered Mercury Living Presence CD (and before that on LP). While I would never suggest that in a field so subjective as music appreciation that there is any absolute “best” of anything, I’ve always found Dorati’s performance masterly, so any newcomer has a lot to look up to. Maestro Di Vittorio does a pretty good job of it, although his interpretations reflect perhaps more of a mock-historical perspective in these pieces than Dorati’s more Romantic approach. I say “mock-historical” because even though Respighi based these Ancient Airs and Dances on Baroque sources, he did intend them for today’s audiences, kind of old works made new. So, it does bring up the question of whether conductors should frame their performances in an ancient, historically informed style or in a manner that more conforms to contemporary standards. As Maestro Di Vittorio notes, “Respighi typically preferred combining pre-Classical melodic styles and musical forms (such as dance suites) with standard late 19th-century Romantic harmonies and textures.”

Whatever, the program begins with the Suite No. 1, which includes four brief dance sections. Di Vittorio then follows Suite No. 1 with Suite No. 3, again four brief dances. It was unclear to me why the conductor chose to present the suites out of chronological order except that Suite No. 2, which comes last on the agenda, is longer than the others, and maybe Di Vittorio wanted to end the Airs with the most substantial material. I dunno.

Probably the most striking things about Di Vittorio’s reading are the tempos. He tends to take the fast movements very quickly and the slower movements very slowly. By that, I mean that he follows one of the period-instrument practices, although not to extremes. The faster music is certainly vigorous and stimulating but without taxing one’s ears, while the slower sections have a sweet, lyrical, flowing quality about them. Nevertheless, the Dorati performances seem more refined to me, more elevated, more stately, more graceful. And with more uniform pacing, Dorati’s handling of the various movements seem to hold together better than in this newer recording.

Accompanying the Ancient Airs and Dances is an early (1908) piece by Respighi, the Concerto all’antica (old-fashioned or antique concert or simply “Concerto in an Ancient Style”). It’s a fairly lyrical work that again draws upon older musical styles for inspiration, even though Respighi admitted that he made up the whole thing himself as a joke for German critics. Maestro Di Vittorio uses the first printed critical edition of the score, published in 2019, making this a world-premiere recording of sorts. I can understand why Di Vittorio begins the program with this selection: It comes across as a proper and welcome complement to the Ancient Airs and Dances, with an especially lovely Adagio and excellent playing from violinist Davide Alogna.

Producers Salvatore Di Vittorio, Bill Siegmund, and Shanan Estreicher and engineer Bill Biegmund recorded the music at the Concert Hall, Adelphi University Performing Arts Center, New York in June 2019. The sound is a tad forward and bright, the upper midrange somewhat edgy at times. Otherwise, it’s good, modern sound, with plenty of clarity and even a little air around the instruments.

Incidentally, since I had the Dorati recording in another player, I couldn’t help notice the difference in sound. The sixty-year older Mercury remaster appeared warmer, smoother, and slightly wider. Just sayin’.


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.

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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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

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