March 21, 2019
Respighi: Feste Romane; Fontane di Roma; Pini di Roma. Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $12.99.
Respighi: Vetrate di chiesa (Church Windows); Impressioni brasiliane (Brazilian Impressions); Rossiniana: Suite for Orchestra. Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $12.99.
Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936) was one of a group of Italian composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who wanted to reassert the importance of Italian orchestral music – as opposed to opera, where Italy was already acknowledged as being in the forefront. Respighi found some unusual ways of furthering this cause, partly by looking back to very old dance forms and reinterpreting and orchestrating them for a later age, partly by creating orchestral suites from earlier composers’ music, and partly by producing Impressionistic travelogues in a style that could never be confused with that of French composers, around whom Impressionism was primarily clustered. Respighi’s “Roman Trilogy” is his best-known foray into this very personal Impressionism and – unsurprisingly, given Respighi’s skill as an orchestrator – has been justifiably popular now for nearly a century. It takes a highly committed conductor and an exceptionally adept, well-balanced orchestra to deliver the three tone poems of the “Roman Trilogy” with their full effect, and it is a measure of the strength of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra under JoAnn Falletta that their new Naxos recording of this material is so excellent from start to finish. The works are unconnected except to some extent thematically (not musically thematically but in terms of literary underpinnings); they are usually heard in the order in which they were composed, first Fountains of Rome (1916), then Pines of Rome (1924), and then Roman Festivals (1928). This recording, however, places Feste Romane first, and there seems to be a good reason to do so: the start of this latest of the pieces is a sonic spectacular, and the work calls throughout for magisterial pomp, excellence in the brass, and an outgoing sense of celebration and splendor – and those are precisely the qualities that Falletta and her orchestra offer here. The result is downright exhilarating. Interestingly, though, the Buffalonians are just as impressive in the much quieter and more-sedate Fountains of Rome, which gives them a chance to play with delicacy and very careful sectional balance, at which Falletta excels. And in Pines of Rome, which has some bright and forthright elements and others that are inward-looking, the skill of the players and sensitivity of the conductor come together to produce a truly engaging performance, filled with rhythmic vitality, sweep and considerable elegance. The Buffalo Philharmonic of 2018, when these works were recorded, is wonderfully suited to the material and is truly a first-rate orchestra.
Interestingly, Naxos offers an unusual chance to hear how the orchestra and its conductor have grown and matured, through comparing the new “Roman Trilogy” recording with one including three other Respighi works – these recorded in 2006 by the same performers (although, of course, not all members of the orchestra are the same). Vetrate di chiesa (Church Windows) dates to 1925 (although it was not performed until 1927) and was in fact not written about church windows: the four movements’ titles were added after Respighi finished the suite. The work is pleasant and, as usual with Respighi, cleverly scored. The gently nostalgic first movement, “The Flight into Egypt,” and dramatically warlike second one, “St. Michael the Archangel,” sound best here, but the third, “The Matins of St. Clare,” drags, and the finale, “St. Gregory the Great,” never really builds to an impressive climax. Impressioni brasiliane (Brazilian Impressions) was written in 1928, after Respighi made a trip to Brazil, but this performance, while workmanlike, never captivates or seems especially in tune with Brazilian rhythms. The first and longest movement, “Tropical Night,” should sound more sensuous than it does here, while the second, “Butantan” (the name of a research facility where dangerous snakes were raised), is never quite sinuous or menacing enough despite Respghi’s quotation at the end of the Dies irae. “Song and Dance,” the finale, is pleasant, but greater ebullience would have made it come across better. This is a cautious performance: Falletta seems to be holding back something throughout this work, shaping it carefully without ever cutting loose to make it sing. Similar care is lavished on Rossiniana: Suite for Orchestra, written the same year as Vetrate di chiesa. But the interpretation falls a bit short for the same reasons. The suite’s four movements are based on piano pieces that Rossini called Les Riens (“Trifles” or “Nothings”), much in the manner of Respighi’s earlier foray into reinterpreting Rossini, the 1919 ballet La boutique fantasque. Unfortunately, Rossiniana is not as charming as the earlier work, and Falletta fails to evoke more than occasional joy from it. The one thing missing most on this (+++) CD is lightheartedness – a quality that would enhance all the pieces here, even the one nominally focused on the sacred. Both Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic have made considerable performance and interpretative strides since this recording, which is certainly not a bad CD but is far more ordinary-sounding than their new offering of the “Roman Trilogy.”