Respighi: Complete Orchestral Works, Volume 1—Feste Romane; Fontane di Roma; Pini di Roma; Gli Uccelli; Suite for Strings; Suite in G for Strings and Organ. Antonio Palcich, organ; Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma conducted by Francesco La Vecchia. Brilliant Classics. $11.99 (2 CDs).
Bartók: The Miraculous Mandarin (complete ballet); Concerto for Orchestra. Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Naxos. $9.99.
Orff: Carmina Burana. Mädchenchor Hannover, Knabenchor Hannover and NDR Radiophilharmonie conducted by Eiji Oue. Rondeau. $18.99.
The works on these three new releases were composed within a short period of time, from 1902 to 1945, but what a fertile time it was! Respighi, Bartók and Orff took music to very different places, partly because of their respective Italian, Hungarian and German heritages and partly because of their personal predilections. Brilliant Classics has embarked on a very interesting project of releasing all the orchestral works by Respighi, with the first two-CD volume containing a mixture of familiar and less-known material. The Suite for Strings of 1902 and Suite for Strings and Organ of 1904-06 are the earliest works here and are firmly neoclassical in orientation, with Respighi applying some of the same techniques he was later to use in the three sets of Ancient Airs and Dances (1917, 1923, 1931). The six-movement Suite for Strings uses a pattern dating back to Telemann’s time, although the elaborate first-movement “overture” here is a Ciaccona with no fewer than 17 variations. Respighi chooses keys and themes to give his work greater unity than its models generally had, but the work’s overall style clearly reflects an older time. The Suite for Strings and Organ is in four movements, of which the deeply felt second, marked Aria, is especially expressive. Respighi’s neoclassical interests are felt even more strongly in Gli Uccelli (“The Birds”) of 1927 – a well-known work portraying the dove, hen, nightingale and cuckoo through arrangements of music from the 17th and 18th centuries. Francesco La Vecchia leads the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma with all the verve and spirit that this music invites – and also brings great understanding and rhythmic flair to Respighi’s wonderfully scored Roman Trilogy, although it is a bit odd that Feste Romane (1928) is here offered before rather than after Fontane di Roma (1916) and Pini di Roma (1924). The three tone poems are musically unconnected but are very strongly interrelated in that each is a tour of scenes of Rome within a specific framework (architecture, broadly considered, in the two earlier pieces, and the population in Feste Romane). La Vecchia handles the varying elements of these pieces with considerable skill, and the orchestra seems so thoroughly familiar with the music that the sections balance and contrast with each other seemingly effortlessly. As often happens with Brilliant Classics releases, there are a few oddities, here ranging from the decision to place Feste Romane before the other tone poems to an apparent inability to decide whether Jacques de Gallot (one source of music for Gli Uccelli) died circa 1685 or 1695 (the latter is correct). The music itself, though, is quite wonderful, and the performances are top-notch – listeners will eagerly await the next release in this Respighi series.
What a contrast between Respighi’s work in the 1920s and Bartók’s! While Respighi was exploring the past, Bartók was defiantly looking ahead both musically and thematically in The Miraculous Mandarin, orchestrated in 1924 although composed in 1918-19. The piece was not performed until 1926 and was too much even for Weimar Germany, being banned after a single performance in Cologne and not heard again during the composer’s lifetime. Filled with dissonances and strange, barbaric rhythms, the work – described as a pantomime rather than a ballet – has a gritty setting and an unpleasant story focused on sex and death as metaphors for intuitive behavior and the corruption of modern civilization. There are three thuggish tramps, three seduction attempts by the girl they are prostituting, and three attempts to kill the strange mandarin who desires the girl but can find fulfillment with her only at the cost of his own death. There is nothing of Tristan und Isolde here, though, for there is no love and only a crude yearning conveyed through intensely impulsive music in which a fugato is used to show the mandarin chasing the girl despite the thugs’ attempts to stop him. Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony (with the Seattle Symphony Chorus in part of the work’s climactic scene) do a fine job with the rattling sounds and ever-changing rhythms of the work: this Naxos recording, of a 1988 performance originally released by Delos, has held up very well indeed. So has the 1989 performance of Bartók’s last completed major work, the Concerto for Orchestra, which also gets a rousing, even exuberant reading here. This piece is a real workout for every section of the orchestra – it certainly deserves its title – and the Seattle Symphony mostly rises to the occasion, despite sounding a touch ragged here and there and not really possessing the full, rich string warmth that the Elegia calls for (the finale, taken very fast, is especially exciting). All in all, this is a highly satisfying performance of a work that is less forward-looking than The Miraculous Mandarin but offers a more accessible combination of folklike, contrapuntal and highly virtuosic elements.
Yet for sheer drama, the 1945 Concerto for Orchestra does not measure up to Orff’s Carmina Burana, which was first heard eight years earlier. Although this piece is actually the first part of a triptych (the other works are Catulli Carmina and Trionfo di Afrodite), it not only overshadows the two later works but also stands above pretty much every choral work of its time. Even after 75 years, it retains unmatched freshness, rhythmic vitality and an absolute brilliance of scoring that is in its own way a match for Respighi’s – and Respighi was one of the 20th century’s greatest masters of orchestral color. Orff’s pounding rhythms, his insistence on static repetition as a developmental device (rather than musical metamorphosis, the guiding principle of classical works for hundreds of years), produce a piece that lies easily on the ear but has a feeling both of complexity and of atavism. Eiji Oue’s version with the NDR Radiophilharmonie is a simply marvelous one. This live recording from 2008 not only features superb orchestral playing and excellent choral work, but also includes three soloists who are really involved in the music and quite willing to emote with an intensity that mirrors that of the orchestra: soprano Heidi Elisabeth Meier, tenor Jean-Sébastien Stengel and baritone Stefan Adam. Meier’s Dulcissime, Stengel’s Olim lacus colueram and Adam’s Ego sum abbas are just three highlights among many. The rhythmic intensity is compelling throughout this performance, and the contrasts between the gigantic full-choral sections and the delicacy of such segments as Chum, chum geselle min are fully exploited to produce a performance that ranges from the thrilling to the emotionally moving. There is, however, one flaw in the Rondeau release: no texts are included, and Carmina Burana really needs them – this is not mere noise but a carefully arranged set of celebrations of springtime, life and love, and listeners need to know that in order to appreciate the work fully. Yes, the texts can be found in various places online, but they really ought to be included with the CD. Aside from that omission, there is almost nothing negative to say about a performance that mixes jubilation and thoughtfulness in appropriate measure and thrillingly conveys Orff’s vision for this deservedly famous choral work.