Anyone thinking that this concert was an ideal programme for Lorin Maazel could not have been more right, the late conductor having scheduled it as part of a series of concerts with the Philharmonia Orchestra that was not to be. Having stepped into the breach, Bratislava-born Juraj Valčuha yet made a highly favourable impression in the Roman Trilogy on which Respighi’s wider reputation has long rested – the main issue being how best to order these pieces. Starting with Fountains of Rome (1916) at least has the value of understatement – witness the insinuating poise of the ‘Valle Giulia at dawn’, or the haunting unreality that pervades the ‘Villa Medici at sunset’; nor were the capricious charms of the ‘Triton in the morning’ underplayed any more than were the brazen splendours of the ‘Trevi at noon’.
Opening the second half, Feste Romane (1928) duly took the guise of an extended scherzo – arguably the best way to approach a piece whose evoking of Roman glories past and present can easily spill over into hubris. Valčuha kept a firm grip over the calculated barbarism of ‘Circuses’, building to a properly explosive climax from which the religious overtones of ‘Jubilee’ went on their supplicatory and increasingly fervent course. The proto-minimalist rhythmic undertow of ‘October Harvest’ never felt straitjacketed, so enabling images of the hunt – whether animal or human – to leave a properly teasing impression; after which the rapidly accumulating mayhem of ‘Epiphany’ summoned a virtuosic orchestral response yet without the music’s raucous good-humour being sacrificed in amid the celebratory frenzy.
Drawing on subtlety and overkill in equal measure, Pines of Rome (1924) is thus the most representative of this threesome and hence the best way with which to round off the sequence. Valčuha found the right fizzing insouciance in the ‘Villa Borghese’, making the abrupt segue into the ‘Catacomb’ section the more heart-stopping. With its inflections of Gregorian chant and inexorable build-up to its sombre climax, this became the nearest thing in all three works to a ‘symphonic adagio’; a potent complement to the diaphanous intermezzo of the ensuing ‘Janiculum’, with Respighi’s handling of orchestral texture (recorded nightingale et al) at its most resourceful. If the initial tempo of the ‘Appian Way’ felt a fraction headlong, there was no doubting the impact of the organ-clad peroration as the music reached its histrionic apex.
Prior to the interval, Ingrid Fliter joined the Philharmonia for Manuel de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain (1915) – a telling foil to the Respighi works in its conjuring of sultry Andalusian landscapes within a formal framework whose deft fluidity is at a decided remove from the concerto archetype. Whether in the rhapsodic musing of ‘In the Generalife’, the enticing elegance of ‘Distant Dance’ or the more agitated unfolding of ‘In the Gardens of the Sierra de Córdoba’, Fliter had the measure of this music’s expressive ambivalence as Falla indulges his resources to a degree unthinkable in the bracing austerity of those pieces that followed. The Philharmonia Orchestra conveyed a restrained eloquence that complemented the more-overt Roman emotions.