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Ottorino RESPIGHI (1879-1936)
Ancient Airs and Dances, Suite No. 1 (1917) [14.45]
Ancient Airs and Dances, Suite No. 2 (1923) [18.41]
Ancient Airs and Dances, Suite No. 3 (1931) [16.38]
Trittico botticelliano (1927) [18.11]
Lausanne Chamber Orchestra/Jesús López-Cobos
rec. Musica Theatre, La-Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, May 1991. DDD
TELARC CLASSICS CD-80309 [69.17]

This is a straight reissue of the original 1992 release, just busting it down to midprice - Telarc hasn't even bothered changing the catalogue number. The program as such is effective, and I'm surprised it doesn't turn up more frequently. The performances, as with so many other repertoire entries, are a matter of swings and roundabouts, with the roundabouts - to extend the metaphor - finally, and unfortunately, getting the upper hand.
The Da Capo Catalog of Classical Music Compositions lists the Trittico botticelliano as for "small orchestra," but I'm not convinced. The musical gestures and the sheer scale of the writing are not dissimilar to those of the Roman Trilogy, implying a bit heftier sonority, particularly in the strings, than a chamber-sized group can comfortably produce. Still, it's mostly such ensembles that record the piece, and López-Cobos's Lausanne Chamber Orchestra makes a plausible case for itself, at least on a casual hearing. The opening flourishes, simple as they are, make a splashy, Pines of Rome-like effect, and it's nice to hear the woodwinds begin their second theme tenderly before picking up the syncopated impulse more conventionally. The central Adoration of the Magi, however, provokes reservations: the luscious woodwinds at the start are too uniformly loud, setting the tone for a movement that, attractive as it sounds, fatally lacks the needed air of mystery. In the third movement, the violins' rhythmic ostinato becomes a bit monotonous, though it sets off the long spinning lines nicely.
The Ancient Airs and Dances come off best in full-sounding tuttis paced by firmly accented strings, which boast consistently clear, airy textures. And an easy grace captures the spirit of the composer's Baroque source material. But, strangely, those woodwinds that played too loudly in the Trittico are here pale and reticent (obviously not a problem in Suite 3, for strings alone). More damaging is a lack of real alertness in the playing. In the opening Balletto of Suite 1, notice the string chording behind the oboe solo; it isn't loose, exactly, but neither are the attacks precisely together. The B section of the Gagliarda flows sweetly and serenely, but amorphously, with no clear sense of destination. The off-the-beat figures in Suite 3's closing Passacaglia lack thrust and point.
The sound, of course, is excellent. But Marriner's EMI accounts of all these pieces (the Ancient Airs with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the Botticelli triptych with St. Martin's) remain the choice. For an alternative Ancient Airs, I'd pass over Dorati's tense Mercury account in favor of digging up Ozawa's DG, probably available only on vinyl: the Japanese conductor hasn't the most light-fingered touch, but, compared to what we hear elsewhere, the Boston Symphony, truly, is the Rolls-Royce of ensembles.
Stephen Francis Vasta

Respighi website


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