By John J. Puccio
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.
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: