Italian composer Ottorino Respighi (July 9, 1879-April 18, 1936) was a master of colorful orchestration whose evocative symphonic tone poems and suites arranging Baroque material in modern garb have been audience-pleasers since they were first heard.
The son of a piano teacher who gave him lessons on both piano and violin, Respighi excelled on the latter. It was while first violinist in the Russian Imperial Orchestra at St. Peterburg that Respighi was able to study with master orchestrator Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. He may have studied later with composer Max Bruch in Berlin (this is disputed), then returned to Italy, mostly working as first violin in the Mugellini Quintet. He moved to Rome in 1913 to teach and lived there for the rest of his life, which was ended by heart failure at the age of 56.
Luckily for listeners, a high percentage of Respighi's most popular works, in graceful, idiomatic performances, can be found on an economical two-CD set compiled by EMI. It opens with the sizeable concert version of the overture to his opera Belfagor, of interest because it features more modern harmonies than are usually associated with this composer typecast as conservative. Then come the more famous pieces, all sets.
Respighi said his famous four-movement tone poem The Fountains of Rome "endeavored to give expression to the sentiments and visions suggested by four of Rome's fountains, contemplated at the hour in which their character is most in harmony with the surrounding landscape." In effect, Respighi takes us through a Roman day from dawn to morning to midday to sunset.
The Pines of Rome is something of a sequel, employing the same strategy of depicting four landmarks in contrasting moods. Ancient pine trees at the Villa Borghese find children playing around them; pines near a catacomb establish a somber mood. The pines on the Janiculum are depicted at night, and Respighi took a step considered daring and innovative at the time (1924) by including in the score the direction for a phonograph record of a nightingale's song to be played during the music. The set closes with the pines alongside the Appian Way, with the march of Roman armies depicted.
All three of these pieces are here played by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Lamberto Gardelli in 1976 recordings that maximize their drama and give the dazzling orchestral sonorities full play. There are of course alternative readings of these works. The Fountains of Rome and The Pines of Rome are both available in spectacular hi-fi 1959 recordings by Fritz Reiner with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (RCA).
Arturo Toscanini, who Respighi helped after the Fascists took control of Italy, waxed some equally colorful (albeit in restricted monophonic sound) readings (also RCA), with the third Roman set, Roman Festivals (not, frankly, at the level of the first two), also included.
The remaining three pieces are conducted by Neville Marriner in much-praised 1975-6 recordings. Respighi was fascinated by the music of the Renaissance and the early Baroque periods; at one point he produced a realization of Monteverdi's seminal opera Orfeo. In 1917 he arranged four 16th century dance pieces for lute into an orchestral suite; this proved so popular that in 1924 he did it again; in 1932 he arranged a similar suite for strings alone. The Ancient Airs & Dances, Suites 1-3 present an odd but enticing mix of antiquity and modernity, their flavor distinctly galant yet weightier and more kaleidoscopic than the originals. Marriner, at the helm of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, whips through them with great liveliness yet never stints on expression.
The Birds is similar to the Ancient Airs & Dances in conception: it arranges lute and harpsichord pieces by 17th century composers (Bernardo Pasquini, Jacques de Gallot, Jean-Philippe Rameau, and an anonymous English tune) to depict a dove, a hen, a nightingale (no sampling this time!), and a cuckoo, along with an opening Prelude. The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields plays them with considerable charm and verve
The Botticelli Triptych of 1927 takes its inspiration from three paintings by 15th century Italian painter Sandro Botticelli. It opens with a bustling "Spring" that suggests a refined and ultra-civilized Stravinsky, depicts "The Adoration of the Magi" by incorporating the well-known Christmas hymn "Veni, veni Emmanuel," and offers a superb sonic portrait of the famous picture of Venus rising from the ocean. The ASMF's performance is highly expressive, and the much-featured winds are strong and assured in such orchestrational moments of genius as flute and bassoon doubling the melody of "Veni, veni Emmanuel" an octave apart, and the strings are silky-smooth.
Those interested in exploring Respighi's less famous works should not overlook La fiamma (The Flame), his most popular opera. A tale of witchcraft, this 1934 work used to be a feature of the repertoire, especially in Italy, but is now rarely heard. Fortunately a 1955 reading featuring soprano Anna Moffo in performance with the Italian Radio Symphony Orchestra & Chorus of Milan, conducted by Francesco Molinari-Pradelli, is available from Opera d'Oro
His chamber music can be sampled on a more recent Chandos CD by the chamber group Ambache, heard in his richly Brahmsian Piano Quintet in F minor (1902), his restless String Quartet in D minor (1909), and the highly melodic Six Pieces for Violin & Piano (1901-05). This is more intimate and personal music, highly Romantic and emotive. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor who recently composed and recorded the soundtrack for director Enrico Cullen's film A Man Full of Days.