Thursday, 18 September 2014

Swimming in Respighi, swaying to Wolf-Ferrari



In fact the Respighi binge is past now, but I still ought to honour it. After Dutoit's surely unrepeatable Proms feat of running Roman Festivals, Fountains and Pines together as a single second-half sequence, I reeled again from the surprising depth of the invention: quite apart from the superlative orchestration of Rimsky-Korsakov's pupil, it strikes me more than ever as a question of feeling, not painting or picture-postcarding. Which is why, perversely, I thought to launch this entry in Piranesian black and white. The darkest colours and some of the most haunting invention, to be sure, reside in the last of the trilogy to be composed, the four interlinked Festivals, which Dutoit wisely placed first since the ultimate Albert Hall spectacular would have to be left to the organ and the three extra trumpets capping the revived glory of the Roman cohorts in the 'Pines of the Appian Way'.


Feeding the Christians to the lions in the Colosseum obviously leads Respighi to invoke early Panavision and Technicolor garishness, though even this sequence is a cut above most film music (though not the scores of Nino Rota, Respighi's best follower. I'd put La Strada third only to Prokofiev's Ivan the Terrible and Shostakovich's King Lear music in that sphere). More haunting are the sounds rising at the start of the second 'picture' and, supremely, 'Ottobrata' from the sleighbell-accompanied passage onward, eerie and suspenseful. Here's Toscanini, followed by an outrageously fine performance of the final Epiphanic bacchanal from our own National Youth Orchestra under Vasily Petrenko at the Proms: apt, because his interpretation of Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony with the European Union Youth Orchestra was my absolute highlight of this year's Albertine festival, alongside the Stemme/Runnicles Salome (the NYO Petrushka under Gardner was stunning, too. Just to show that I'm not exclusively obsessed by complicated orchestral scores, I'd put William Christie's late-night Rameau motets in there too, and why not bung in the impassioned debut of the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic earlier that evening).



The introduction of the mandolin in 'Ottobrata' is especially magical: the whole of the nocturnal slow fade sequence matches the  second 'Nachtmusik' of Mahler's Seventh Symphony. Which I'm sure Respighi must have known. There's also a bewitching night picture in the first of the Brazilian Impressions, conducted by Dorati on a CD of early-stereo Mercury recordings which also includes the delicious suite of discreet arrangements The Birds - Going for a Song probably doesn't mean much to the younger generations these days - as well as the two usual subjects. The second Brazilian Impression here is of a visit to a snake institute, complete with Dies Irae.


I finally got round to listening to Respighi's Sinfonia Drammatica of 1914, and the Mahler influence is undeniable in this monument to the shock and grief around the outbreak of the First World War. I expected it to be turgid and overblown, but the varied use of orchestra, a year before Fountains properly made the composer's name, can be extremely subtle and on a superficial listening to the late, lamented Ted Downes's recording with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, I could already grasp that Respighi is doing something unique with form in the slow burn-out which marks the last third of the first movement.


From there it was on to investigate some of the songs, in a disc I'd been given some years back by a Dutch friend and never listened to; the singers are a perfectly Italianate soprano, Andrea Catzel, and a barely adequate tenor whom it would be fairer not to name, but I'm grateful to pianist Reinild Mees for masterminding the project, of which the CD I have is the second volume.

It's so marvellous to hear beautifully set parlando Italian, as in the early 'Storia breve', and I'll never forget 'Nebbie' performed by Teresa Berganza in an encore to a Royal Opera House recital. Among the songs of 1909 there's charming pentatonic style, more suitable to evoke China, in 'Serenata indiana', a setting of Shelley, and more word-sensitivity in 'E se un giorno tornasse', an adaptation of Maeterlinck. And Respighi's gift to be simple but still individual comes in an ideal encore, 'Canzone sarda'.

The big number for mezzo-soprano and string orchestra of 1918 Il tramonto, a winner as performed by the glorious Christine Rice on Pappano's EMI Respighi disc, is also a Shelley setting, by the way. How the poet of  'The Sunset' must have wished there were a word as beautiful as 'tramonto' in the English language.. Any excuse to re-use my shot of Shelley's grave in Rome's English cemetery from the 2011 Death in the South blog entry.


Then it was time to revisit Respighi's orchestrated selections from Rachmaninov's Etudes-Tableaux, and back to the best Fountains I've ever heard - even in less than state-of-the-art sound, from Victor de Sabata. This sets the seal on the work itself being my favourite of the Roman trilogy for its poetry as a whole (I've been there already on the blog, but de Sabata's exceptional interpretation merits a revisit). Sadly the entire recording of 1947 isn't up as a single unit on YouTube, which means that the highlight, the horn blasts for the Triton fountain, lacks its proper impact bursting out of the silence of the Valle Giulian poetry. Still, you get a sense of de Sabata's electricity as well as his control.


This was a serendipitous discovery bringing me back full circle after a coincidental excursion into the delicious music of Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari: I knew de Sabata's recordings of his Overture to Il segreto di Susanna - the Gardelli recording of which was a favourite LP in my teens, sadly never on CD to my knowledge - and the Intermezzo from I quattro rusteghi, an encore winner if ever there was one (so is the quirky little waltz from I gioielli della Madonna).


They're on a two CD EMI set as fillers to the Verdi Requiem, but I don't think I'd ever got as far as the Respighi or the Rossini William Tell Overture, a lesson in articulation that almost outdoes Toscanini.

It may have been an unconscious echo from my Respighi listening, but I came back to Wolf-Ferrari simply as a result of seeing an unheard disc on the piles of unindexed CDs and popping it on.


Most of the Violin Concerto could have been written in the 1890s - in fact at least one of the themes dates from that time -  but was actually premiered, close to its composition, in Munich on 7 January 1944. Hardly an auspicious time or place, and I still haven't quite got to the bottom of why Wolf-Ferrari and his muse-violinist, Guila (sic) Bustabo were there (nor indeed clarified Respighi's links to the Fascists).

The anachronistic quality isn't, to my ears, as much of a liability as it is in Korngold's sticky concerto of the same period. While Korngold was mired in late romanticism, Wolf-Ferrari somehow kept his favoured neoclassical mode fresh. Heavens, the tag - Arthur Lourie's re Stravinsky, contrasting Schoenberg's 'neo-Gothic' - was nearly two decades in the future when the Italo-German gave the cue to the next similarly duo-national composer, Busoni, with the Goldoni-based operas Le donne curiose (1903) and I quattro rusteghi (1906 - and yes, dear reader, I've seen it, in Zurich. Charming in parts but way too long-winded, though that may have been a false impression given by a rather cumbersome production).


The Violin Concerto certainly charms in its opening dream-tune, brought back Dvořák and Elgar style in the otherwise sparkling finale's nostalgic cadenza. The work even surprises us with galloping anger in the third-movement Improvviso, which while not exactly stylistically of the 1940s may express something of the pain Wolf-Ferrari felt at what he and his beloved Guila were going through. It's all well documented in the CD's 96 page accompanying booklet. Looking for something to demonstrate from YouTube, I came across this performance, accompanied by the violin part. Seemingly it's not embeddable, but do click on the link. Maddening that there's no credit for the performers, but I'm fascinated to see a comment asking if this is the Bustabo/Kempe recording - I didn't know there was one. Anyway, it's very fine, but then so is the slightly cooler one I've been listening to at home.

There Vienna-based violinist Benjamin Schmid and conductor Friedrich Haider, who's obviously worked wonders on the Oviedo Filarmonía, were discoveries for me. Haider loves his special composer-project to bits, and it's quite something that his performance of the delicious, encore-worthy Rusteghi Intermezzo is every inch as good in its way as de Sabata's. That miniature is surely the very essence of what protagonist Adrian Leverkühn tries to define, rather surprisingly, in Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus when he speaks of his old teacher:

For him, music was music, if that was what it was, and his objection to Goethe's statement that 'art is concerned with the serious and the good' was that something light can be serious, too, if it is good, which it can be just as easily as something serious can...I have always taken him to mean that one must have a very firm grasp of the good to be able to handle what is light.

Spellbound by my re-reading of this extraordinary novel, which is nothing like what little I remember of it from my teens, and now I can't wait to get to the end; it's turned into quite the metaphysical thriller. But in the meantime, some 'serious-light' music (Prokofiev used the term interestingly, too). JEG's performance of the Rusteghi Intermezzo is almost as fine as the ones I cite above, and you get a glimpse of Wolf-Ferrari's Venice, though I apologise for the naff dancing.


Finalmente, let's wheel back to Toscanini in what sounds like a very early (pre-electrical recording era?) performance of the delicious and authentically neoclassical overture to Il segreto di Susanna.


19 comments:

Susan Scheid said...

Holy mackerel David, there's enough here to keep me occupied for a year! (Anneli's description for you was "encyclopedic," and this post demonstrates that in spades!) You may not be aware of this, but YOU are the one who introduced me to Respighi (so you see how very backward I really am). It was that gorgeous post featuring the fountains of Rome that did it, which gave the music in an irresistibly beautiful context. I'm quite struck by the quote from Mann, too, particularly this: "one must have a very firm grasp of the good to be able to handle what is light." I've been listening to quite a bit of Sibelius's incidental theatrical music, and, at least it seems to me, there is so much to love. I am reminded by this of Shostakovich, too, of course. There simply isn't a bright line between "serious" and "light" when in the right hands, is there?

David said...

Absolutely not, Sue, and your mentioning Sibelius reminds me of total 'serious-light' perfection in the miniature form - his arrangement in the orchestral suite from his own Tempest music of Ariel's 'Where the Bee Sucks' for two clarinets with light string accompaniment: one minute of sheer ineffable perfection, not least the way in which for the second stanza he postpones the final cadenza with a delicious sideslip.

As for 'serious-light' music generally, no wonder masters in the 'trade' were so in awe of the Strauss family waltzes.

Anyway, even if you're very busy, do listen to 'Ottobrata' and the two Wolf-Ferrari gems.

Susan Scheid said...

The handicap, always, for me, is that, if I'm on the iPad, none of the videos show up, so I can't cue them for listening! But, back on the laptop now, I have had a listen this AM to L'Ottobrata, as well as the two serious-light pieces of Wolf-Ferrari (a composer wholly new to me). The winner for me is, perhaps not surprisingly, L'Ottobrata, though W-F's Intermezzo is a charmer (particularly if you don't watch the dancing . . .). You are, by the way, also the one who introduced me to Sibelius's and Tchaikovsky's Tempests, both wonderful, though I do have to give Sibelius's the edge. (But then, who needs to compare? They're both so enjoyable.) I'm listening to the Suite version of When the Bee Sucks now. I can’t identify the sideslip, so wish I could (listening to Jarvi’s Suite), but the whole is a perfect delight.

David said...

It's the prolongation of the end - you can hear where verse one ends, right? And then in verse two you think it's going to stop and it just reaches out for a second or two more.

The Segreto di Susanna Overture is perfect form - three lovely tunes plus even a little fugato just before the end.

Susan Scheid said...

Yes, I definitely can hear where verse 1 ends, and I think I heard the elongation, but wouldn't swear to it. ("When" should have been "Where," nice of you to let that one go by.) Re the Segreto di Susanna Overture, I'll listen again at some point, but meanwhile, I looked up the synopsis. Such a peculiar plot--reminds me a bit of an O. Henry story. (This is how wikipedia lead-footedly describes the closing scene: "They forgive each other and swear eternal love while smoking together.")

David said...

Indeed - hardly a plot at all, just enough to keep a little one-act intermezzo bubbling along. But Susanna's secret smoking scenes are so lovely - woodwind curlicues for the smoke like Debussy's Faune music - and there's another fabulous interlude tune. When I got it out of the record library as a teenager, ma wrote it down on the 'to return' list as 'Cigaretta Susanna'...

David Damant said...

The Victorians could never appreciate serious-light. They were amazed that the composer of that soppy sentimental self indulgence The Lost Cord could waste his talents on his operas, which have long outlasted those tedious critics.

The mask of Tragedy and the mask of Comedy are the same, it is just a matter of how you look at it

Those who follow Shakespeare on bees should remember that in his day the letter s was written as a long f

David said...

Well, there you have it - the greatest exponent of 'serious-light' before Elgar England has ever known (though of course a lot of Purcell is 'serious-light' too). And maybe it's been slightly mythologised, but Sullivan was always hankering after an Ivanhoe when his forte was the possibility of pathos in comedy. What frightful snobbery there still is on the subject.

Greetings from Bamberg, where two New Year's Eves ago, I'm told, the ineffable Dame Felicity came and entertained everyone in G&S, with accompaniment from the Symphony Orchestra.

Maybe I'm being dense, but I don't get the connection of the Shakespeare and Bees remark...

David Damant said...

Did Sullivan yearn after a Grand Opera, or did he yearn to escape the pressures he was under to write one?

Where the bee sucks, there suck I
[And note my previous remark]

David Damant said...

In the Cathedral at Bamberg is the statute of the horse and rider called the Bamberger Reiter ( from about 1200), which came into the frame in the last century when one of the sons of Bamberg, Claus Graf von Stauffenberg, attempted the assassination of Hitler. He failed and was executed, but Stauffenberg was compared with the (unknown) rider in the Cathedral, especially as he was an officer in the Bamberger Reiter Regiment ( the 17th Cavalry)

David said...

Yes, he did - and of course he wrote it, and it wasn't a huge success (there's quite a good recording of Ivanhoe on Chandos). He also wrote a symphony, but he was much younger then. And some delicious incidental music to the play with 'Where the bee sucks'. And now I get it, thank you very much.

Tomorrow morning I shall see said Rider. Nice, as Simon Winder puts it, that his identity, and hence his self-importance, is lost in the mists of time.

A less acceptable piece of mythology is that when the bombing raid turned away from Bamberg thanks to fog, and spared the legacy which even Italians think it worth travelling to see, some pious fools of locals described the fog as their saintly Kunigunda spreading her mantle. Pah - so the citizens of the next town, less Catholic, deserved to get it instead. There's religious self-regard for you.

wanderer said...

Several readings later, and I'm tempted to dabble in thoughts about musical snobbery, then reread the Thomas Mann quote again, and all is said.

Yet to find time to watch all the clips, I couldn't resist the naff dancing one, and note that naff is being kind. The (Sir Edward Downes) Sinfonia Drammatica of which I'm completely ignorant interests me most, and shall pursue; thanks.

I'm busting to hear about Bamberg, where I've have the short luxury of a day visit (ex BT by car) and where the expat Mr Nott is music director of the orchestra I believe.

David said...

Indeed, wanderer, that trip sated two dreams - to hear Nott and the Bamberg SO in concert, and to see Bamberg. Report on theartsdesk on Sunday, and mid-October a big Q&A with the fabulous J Nott - I keep saying one of our (England's, for otherwise I'd have to bump it up with Donald Runnicles) three top conductors. As the other two for me are Wigglesworth and Ticciati, you can work out who's missing.

Your interest prompts me to realise that I have the ideal postcard to send you (albeit with a British stamp). Let's just say it combines your interest with your fabulous photography of Australian bird life, and concerns what Simon Winder in my Teutonic bible Germania describes as 'perhaps the most wonderful room in the world'. I suspect that in your day trip - what's 'ex BT'? - you probably didn't get there. Just give me your full postal address by email...

Laurent said...

Having lived in Rome and seen the sights I always find it difficult to reconcile the music of Respighi with the Pines, the Fountains, a Carnaval or the Appian Way. When he wrote this music Rome had a more bucolic air. Though the Pines and the Appian Way still has that dreamy bucolic look. Nonetheless it is beautiful music and Rome is Rome despite it all.

David said...

I'd agree with you, Laurent, re the fountains of the Valle Giulia or the Villa Medici (no shepherds now!). But parts of the city can still feel oddly bucolic: the Aventine is like a village, some of the ruins feel a long way from the traffic.

But the riots of the Villa Borghese and the Piazza Navona are SO Rome today, and I feel he gives a stronger mythical frame to the Triton and Trevi fountains.

If you don't know the two movements of Feste Romane I put up, do listen - they're extraordinary.

wanderer said...

Apologies for being unnecessarily cryptic: BT is Bayreuth and it was an abbreviated 'I drove to Bamberg from Bayreuth for the day'.

Who is missing is a bit obvious. Happily, both Runnicles and Nott are down here later this year.

Anything in the running for the world's most wonderful room has tweaked my interest no end. 'Good Rooms' are not that easy to find, or create. The ones which catch your breath when you walk in, and not by ostentation but by some perfect symmetry and balance which speaks of a harmony which calms all else. Unless you hint at one of Nature's rooms, perhaps. I'm fascinated now.

Ascribing good fortune to an interventional deity, and worse the converse (like gays and other sinners caused 9/11 etc) is, of course, rubbish. So what of prayer then?

David said...

Did you hear about our lovely Ukip man who declared that the floods were God's judgment on Cameron for introducing gay marriage? In which case funny, isn't it, as our friend Stephen pointed out, how the water in the canal running alongside Manchester's 'Gay Village' didn't rise up and engulf that particular Sodom.

I don't know why Bamberg evaded me for so long. On one of my days off in Bayreuth I went, with excellent company, to the horrible Disneyland of Rothenberg an der Tauber, when clearly the very real beauty of lived-in Bamberg should have been top of the list.

David Damant said...

Napoleon said that the Piazza San Marco was the most beautiful salon in the world.

David said...

It's more like a playground of global fools these days, though it has its charm at twilight or very early in the morning.