Respighi: Metamorphosen, Ballata delle gnomidi, Belkis - Neschling

Respighi: Metamorphosen, Ballata delle gnomidi, Belkis - Neschling


Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral

Ballata delle gnomidi
Belkis, Regina di Saba

Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège
John Neschling (conductor)

Alongside Puccini, Ottorino Respighi is the best-known Italian composer from the first half of the twentieth century, but his reputation rests almost exclusively on his ‘Roman Trilogy’: The Fountains of Rome, The Pines of Rome and Roman Festivals. The great popularity of these tone poems has overshadowed the greater part of his production, including the three orchestral works gathered here. Ballata delle gnomidi (The Ballad of the Gnomes) was composed in 1920 – chronologically between The Fountains of Rome and The Pines of Rome – and was inspired by a poem depicting satanic rituals, sexual abandonment and blood sacrifice. Respighi matches this with music comparable to certain pages from Richard Strauss’s opera Salome in terms of the opulence of its orchestration and its exotic – and erotic – atmosphere.

The Ballata is here framed by two later and longer works. Respighi composed Metamorphoseon in 1930, for the fiftieth anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and it is in fact something of a concerto for orchestra. The 30-minute long work consists of a theme and twelve variations or 'modes', an allusion to the different ways in which the music can be transformed by allowing various instruments or sections to shine. The disc closes with the suite from Belkis, Regina di Saba, a full-length ballet depicting the encounter between the Queen of Sheba and Solomon. The original score involved a massive orchestra including zithers, wind machine, choir, soloists and narrator as well as an off-stage brass ensemble, but Respighi omitted the vocal parts and the exotic instruments when he prepared a suite for concert use.

John Neschling has previously recorded two acclaimed discs of Respighi’s music for BIS. The latest instalment also featured l’Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège, in a performance of Impressioni brasiliane which the reviewer on German web site Klassik Heute described as ‘a true showpiece of kaleidoscopic and brilliant colours and subtle humour.’

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PCM recording

Reviews (2)

Review by John Miller - June 25, 2015

This isn't the first time that BIS has an attrtactive front illustration which neatly sums up the title or purpose of the disc's programme. This time, fine watercolours of butterflies and caterpillars from 1700 are really about metamorphism, just what Respighi's intention was for in his orchestral masterpiece Metamorphoseon Modi XX - Theme e Variazione.

Metamorphoseon has been hampered somewhat by its lengthy and over-erudite title, which may well have put off some audiences. According to his wife Elsa, Respighi too had a lot of self-doubt concerning Metamorphoseon; he never asked for it to be played in Italy, didn't refer to it in conversation and thought it "difficult to perform". Yet it was a great compliment for the 51-year old, as it was a commission in 1930 for the fiftieth anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from its Director Serge Kousevitzky. After its première in the same year, according to the Boston Press, it was a substantial success and is now regarded as one of Respighi's masterpieces.

Respighi's title of 'mode' in this instance is used instead of the more usual 'variations', 12 of which follow, numbered ‘Modus I -XII’. The metamorphosis he engages with is more subtle than Classical tactics for variations; it involves instrumental combinations, moods, harmonic changes and demonstrating how well individual instruments can shine in solos. Thus Respighi pays tribute to the Boston orchestra which he had conducted a number of times. Effectively, the piece is a concerto for orchestra, not unlike that of Bartòk. There are two themes to start the process, the first on strings softly accompanied by bassoon and contra-bassoon in a slow Gregorian-sounding introduction, followed by a new melodic and rhythmic idea in the lower strings, before returning to the slower tread of the beginning.

Throughout the piece, the orchestration is superb, just as the melodies shine with beauty. Woodwind and horns in particular are given solos and lines which are 'discussed' by each type of instrument in huddled commentaries. A particularly lovely Modus (VII) is marked ‘Cadenza’. Respighi goes beyond standard solos demonstrating virtuosity in a conventional work for soloist and orchestra; here he has the orchestra's soloists revel in his most imaginative invention, as in the horn’s echo effect and the bassoon’s oriental sounding scale. This is the longest of all the variations and allows us to hear the oboe, clarinet and harp, each with cadenzas more than once, a real bonus, and with cushions of deep, magically soft string tones and glissandi as a background. In the last few modes, the temperature rises as does the percussion (including tam-tam, bass drum and gong). Modus X, XI & XII are played without a break and form a finale, ultimately blazingly triumphant as the heavy brass come in with the splendid organ holding the deep bass.

With two acclaimed Respighi SA-CDs for BIS under his belt, John Neschling fires up the Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège (in Belgium) to play generously, shaping the piece with compelling coherence, pace and balance. On another SA-CD, the Wuppertal Symphony Orchestra, conducted by George Hanson, also plays an ingratiating Metamorphoseon with rich sonorities and a similarly good entry from their organ (Respighi: Rossiniana, Metamorphoseon modi XII - Hanson). Hanson is nearly two and a half minutes faster than Neschling, but I appreciate Neschling's more relaxed approach, as it gives the soloists chance to modulate their solos with less stress. However, the Wuppertal hall has more reflections from surfaces which are not as broken up as the Liège one, therefore tending to blur details at high volumes - for example, the piccolo sound seems to leap forward with strong images from each of the speakers in multichannel mode.

Next, a symphonic poem: 'The Ballad of the Gnomes'. Composed in 1920, between 'The Fountains of Rome' and 'The Pines of Rome', Respighi was attracted by a poem of this name by the regional director of Ricordi's, his publishers. The poem concatenates themes from Greek, Roman and Nordic mythologies. A male gnome is abducted by two female gnomes and subjected to performing sexual services for them in a sort of satanic rite. Over 16 minutes, a lurid and lascivious musical scena belies Grieg's naughty Norse gnomes in a blaze of orchestral colour, which is both entertaining and remarkable for the enthusiastic playing of every orchestral department.

'Belkis, Regina di Saba' is a ballet by Respighi (1934), based on a Biblical story of a visit c. C10th BC to Jerusalem by the sublimely beautiful Queen of Sheba. The suite has five movements, which display Respighi's ability to mimic Middle Eastern sounds of various kinds with modern instruments (a similar feat was also overcome by Saint-Saëns, who spent some years in the area). The first two movements are very atmospheric, with some gorgeous oboe solos and silky soft playing from all departments. The last two movements are dances for wars and orgies respectively. The latter, as vivid as film music, is rhythmically hypnotic, very loud, full of percussion and brilliant brass technique; it certainly could encourage your neighbours to move homes.

The Salle Philharmonique in Liège has a wonderful acoustic for its orchestra; airy but sonically clean, preserving detail throughout the music's very wide dynamic range. This has been captured by the engineer with a balance which in 5.0 mode gives a vivid front-back perspective and wide side to side image of the orchestra, with every instrument clearly in place. Stereo balance is natural and both 2.0 and 5.0 systems produce an ideal sonic fabric to enhance the already thrilling performance from the 100 strong orchestra. This SA-CD presages another one of Neschling's successes. A real collector's piece for Respighi fans.

Copyright © 2015 John Miller and


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Review by Graham Williams - September 9, 2015

Those seeking a coupling of these three lesser known orchestral works of Respighi need look no further than this superb release from BIS. The Brazilian-born conductor John Neschling has already demonstrated his complete empathy with Respighi's music in his two previous releases for this label. – the so-called 'Roman Trilogy' with the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra Respighi: Roman Trilogy - Neschling and arguably an even finer follow-up of the the complete ballet score for 'La Boutique Fantasque' and 'Impressioni brasiliane' with the orchestra heard on this latest release Respighi: Brazilian Impressions, La Boutique Fantasque - Neschling.

'Metamorphoseon' with which Neschling's program begins comprises a theme and 12 variations (or modes), and is now generally accepted as one of Respighi's finest works in spite of the composer's doubts about its quality. Geoffrey Simon's spectacular 1985 recording on CD for Chandos raised the work's profile considerably and more recently we have had a sumptuous SACD version from George Hanson and the Wuppertal Symphony Orchestra on MDG.

Neschling's measured account of this imposing work is on the whole most impressive, though perhaps his understandable tendency to dwell on the lyrical beauty of the music does at times rob it of forward momentum, but the responsiveness of the Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège is beyond reproach. Overall timings do, for once, give an accurate reflection of the different approaches of the three conductors; Neschling takes 29'16”, Hanson 26'50” and Simon 25'36”. When sound quality is brought into the equation Neschling and Hanson are equally matched with the BIS recording having marginally greater clarity and MDG greater ambient warmth.

Respighi's lurid symphonic poem Ballata delle gnomidi' with its nightmare scenario of sexual depravity and brutal murder receives a magnificent performance in which Neschling and the players of his fine Belgian orchestra convey to the listener the sensuousness and violence of this remarkable piece while the composer's glittering orchestration has been captured by the BIS engineers with startling vividness.

The expressive qualities of Neschling's performances on this disc are displayed to greatest advantage in his ravishing account of the four-movement suite from Respighi's ballet 'Belkis, Regina di Saba' performed here in the order of the published score – two atmospheric slow movements followed by two percussive fast ones. Some conductors (notably Geoffrey Simon and Sascha Goetzel on a recent CD) alternate slow and fast movements to bring greater variety to the suite, but Neschling's performance lacks nothing in commitment and the BIS sonics are spectacular.

It is to be fervently hoped that more Respighi might be forthcoming from this outstanding team, the 'Sinfonia Drammatica' being an obvious choice.

Copyright © 2015 Graham Williams and


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