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.