Pines of Rome
Fountains of Rome
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded 28 & 29 September 2010 in Walthamstow Town Hall, London
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Ottorino Respighi’s Roman Trilogy (Onyx opts for “triptych”) never seems to go out of fashion, certainly not Pines of Rome and Fountains of Rome. This is terrifically colourful and descriptive music, orchestrated with painterly mastery. All three pieces need a virtuoso orchestra, a conductor who can pump up the action and superb sound. All three are supplied here (save for the dynamic range being a little limited at both ends). The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is on top form, responding enthusiastically and sensitively to Josep Caballé-Domenech who relishes the fun and games that open Pines (1924) and then conjures gloom and grandeur from the following Catacomb section. Perspectives are well displayed, such as the distant trumpet. It’s no mean feat to highlight musical pictures of Italian landscapes in the potentially arid and microphone-conscious conditions of a London recording studio, but Caballé-Domenech (a near-neighbour from Spain) and the RPO achieve a lively and picturesque exhibition in what seem like long-take sessions (which might explain some irritating noises-off at various points throughout the pieces, not least around the 2’20” mark of track 2) and Walthamstow Town Hall is an ideal location for Respighi’s potent creations, the building being spacious yet focussed. This account of Pines of Rome is blessed with magical clarinet solos, and even if the recorded nightingale probably owes to post-production the impression given is that it was warbling from the roof while the musicians created a fragrant nocturne. To close, the ghosts of Roman Legions marching along the Appian Way are a broody bunch, the performers managing black-and-white to Technicolor with aplomb (although the organ pedal is rather too prominent).
Of Respighi’s triple-bill, Fountains of Rome (1917) is always the freshest in its romance and is gratefully without the bombast that can engulf Pines (although such is avoided here). The opening of Fountains is here a little lacking in quietude if not expressivity, enchantment then giving way to a bright day – this is a dawn to dusk piece –, quicksilver textures glinting in the rising sun before the full force of spray and heat hits us as the music climaxes brassily and resplendently (although, once again, the organ is too audible in the mix; it should be felt rather than being explicit) and Caballé-Domenech judges the gushes well. As we head to dusk there is some lovely radiant playing, but oh for a little more pianissimo. Roman Festivals (1929) receives a corking performance, exuberant and savage in its opening, Caballé-Domenech parading a Biblical epic that Cecil B. DeMille would recognise, with Pagan and animalistic conflicts (the organ’s presence now welcome) and eerie and monumental processionals. Then the mood changes to the joyful pealing of celebration and happy-go-lucky revellers – a mandolin maybe introducing courting couples – before night-time inebriation gets the better of the citizens and Respighi (surely consciously aping Stravinsky’s Petrushka) fires-up his orchestra for a grandstand finish, brilliantly brought off here to complete a terrific performance.
These very enjoyable and likeable performances – Roman Festivals is outstanding – offer strong competition to perhaps the best of more-recent versions of Respighi’s Roman travelogue, namely that by the Saint Cecilia Orchestra and Antonio Pappano on EMI (which has the bonus of Respighi’s very beautiful Il tramonto). Certainly the RPO and Caballé-Domenech can more than hold their own in such illustrious company.