Respighi: Roman Trilogy - Wilson
Chandos CHSA 5261
Classical - Orchestral
Respighi: Roman Trilogy
Sinfonia of London
John Wilson, conductor
Following the widespread critical acclaim of their first two recordings – including a BBC Music Magazine Award – John Wilson and the Sinfonia of London turn to Respighi’s Roman Trilogy for their third release. Born in Bologna in 1879, Respighi trained as a violinist and composer, and travelled extensively. His influences are therefore wide-ranging, from Richard Strauss and Debussy to Rimsky-Korsakov (who taught him orchestration) in addition to a love of – and fascination with – Plainsong and music of the Italian baroque.
Fountains of Rome was the first of these three great tone poems, composed between 1913 and 1916, and inspired by a series of photographs given to him by the artist Edita Broglio. Intensely programmatic, the work sees Respighi setting out to evoke ‘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, or in which their beauty appears most impressive to the observer’. Pines of Rome was completed in 1924 – a particularly turbulent time in Italy, following Mussolini’s appointment as Prime Minister, in 1922. Like Fountains, the work is explicitly programmatic, set in four sections, and calling for extremely large orchestral forces – including a gramophone recording of a nightingale in the third movement.
Roman Festivals was premiered in 1928 by the New York Philharmonic under Toscanini, who was a great supporter of Respighi and regularly performed his works throughout his career. Again, in four parts, Festivals calls for the largest orchestration of all, including a vast array of percussion as well as organ, four-hand piano and mandolin.
Despite some negative criticism (particularly in the UK) when they were first introduced, these works have found favour with concert goers around the world and been regularly performed ever since – indeed, they have perhaps proven much more highly valued by conductors and audiences than by the critics!
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Review by Graham Williams - July 28, 2020
John Wilson’s two recordings on SACD with the Sinfonia of London, the first of music by Korngold Korngold: Symphony - Wilson and the second of French orchestral works Escales: French Orchestral Works - Wilson, have garnered numerous accolades not only for the quality of the performances but also for the superb sound quality that the Chandos engineers accorded him and his hand-picked orchestra. That body, relaunched as a recording orchestra in 2018, comprises of an outstanding group of musicians who meet several times a year for specific projects. The orchestra includes a significant number of principals and leaders from orchestras based both in the UK and abroad alongside notable soloists and members of distinguished chamber groups. The fresh and persuasive playing displayed by these musicians in the first two recordings are now brought to bear on the music of Ottorino Respighi.
For his third recording with this orchestra Wilson has chosen the three symphonic poems that comprise Respighi’s Roman trilogy – The Fountains of Rome (1914-16), the Pines of Rome (1923-24) and Feste Romane (1928). Though these evocative and stunning orchestral show pieces have been recorded countless times and championed by many distinguished conductors of the past, they never fail to make an impression whether in the concert hall or on disc.
Most recordings of the Roman trilogy place the three works in the order of their composition but on this disc Feste Romane, for a reason not apparent to me, is presented first. Its opening movement ‘Circences’ is performed with an astonishing attack and ferocity that will pin you to your seat. This typifies Wilson’s propulsive and consistently dynamic approach to the music throughout these accounts. It is worth mentioning here that the full weight of the organ pedal notes used by Respighi at various points in these scores is appropriately floor trembling on this Chandos disc, something that is often lacking in some rival versions. As a manipulator of musical sonorities Wilson is an absolute master and he captures the various moods of this music and its expressive potential with unerring skill. His tempi, though fleet-footed, are convincingly flexible and ensure that the sensuously luxurious textures of, for example, the outer movements of the Fountains of Rome, are not short-changed.
In all three of these works it is clear that Wilson knows exactly what he wants and his players oblige with commendable enthusiasm. The Sinfonia of London has a lustrous sound that is cohesive and impeccably blended. Its musicians clearly revel in the virtuosity that Respighi requires of them producing wonderfully manicured orchestral timbres that do full justice to the wealth of beguiling orchestral effects present in these scores.
The excellence of Wilson’s Sinfonia of London response to these sonically opulent pieces is matched by that of the recorded sound superbly engineered in 24-bit / 96KHz and 5.0 channel surround by engineer Ralph Couzens. The venue was the Church of St Augustine Kilburn, London (2-7 September 2019). The acoustic of the church provides a wonderful sense of space that remains open, vivid and detailed even in the heaviest orchestral climaxes and there are many of those in these three pieces. Photographs of the recording sessions in the accompanying booklet show the orchestra packed into the nave with the additional brass in the gallery.
Wilson’s only direct competition on multi-channel SACD (which is what this music surely requires) is the excellent BIS version recorded in 2008 from John Neschling and the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra. Some might prefer Neschling’s less dynamic approach to these scores while others would miss the visceral thrill of Wilson’s galvanic conducting. Respighi aficionados will want both versions in their collections together with the classic 1959 Reiner recording of the Fountains and the Pines, in one of its iterations, that still sounds amazing sixty years on!
These vivid and compelling performances can be enthusiastically recommended.
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