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Ottorino RESPIGHI (1879-1936)
The Complete Works for Violin and Piano, Vol. 1

Sonata in B minor for violin and piano (1916-17) [24:57]
1. Moderato
2. Andante espressivo
3. Passacaglia. Allegro moderato ma energico
Cinque Pezzi (Five Pieces) for violin and piano (c.1927) [20:38]
4. Romanza
5. Aubade
6. Madrigale
7. Berceuse
8. Humoresque
Sei Pezzi (Six Pieces) for violin and piano (c.1922) [24:48]
9. Berceuse
10. Melodia
11. Leggenda
12. Valse caressante
13. Serenata
14. Aria
Ilona Then-Bergh (violin)
Michael Schäfer (piano)
rec. 31 March, 8 June 2005, University of Music and Performing Arts, Munich, Germany. DDD
GENUIN GEN 86063 [71:52]


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Genuin Musikproduktion the Leipzig-based independent record label was founded in 1998 by two sound engineers from Detmold, Holger Busse and Alfredo Lasheras Hakobian. This Genuin release is part of the label’s continuing Un!erhört series: world premiere recordings of rare chamber music. Other releases include the complete sonatas and other works for piano of Cyril Scott and the complete piano music of Vincent d’Indy.

Violinist Ilona Then-Bergh and pianist Michael Schäfer are the performers on what is claimed to be the first complete recording of Respighi’s works for violin and piano. Ilona Then-Bergh from the age of 19 was appointed as first concert-mistress of the Bavarian State Orchestra and later served in the same role with the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks. Then-Bergh now focuses exclusively on chamber music. Pianist Michael Schäfer has a penchant for recording unusual repertoire of neglected and forgotten composers. He is a member of various chamber music groups, plays as a soloist and also as an accompanist on concert platforms. A professor at the Munich State Conservatory, Schäfer also gives piano masterclasses.

Respighi’s reputation rests mainly on the popularity of his trilogy of orchestral tone poems in which he interpreted different aspects of Rome: Fountains of Rome (1917), Pines of Rome (1924) and Roman Festivals (1929). Respighi was fascinated by and certainly identified himself with early music. Well known in the repertoire are his three orchestral suites Ancient Dances and Airs which are modern arrangements of pieces for lute from the Italian and French Renaissance and by early Baroque composers.

The Violin Sonata in B minor was first performed in Bologna in March 1918. It is cast in three substantial movements and is the major work of all his compositions for violin and piano. Respighi’s prowess as violinist clearly had an influence on this forceful and rhapsodic, late-Romantic score dating from the same time Fountains of Rome. I note that the period around 1917 was highly productive for violin sonatas as in addition to Respighi's score composers Debussy, Fauré, Pfitzner, Ireland, Dunhill, Howells and Roslavetz were also active producing violin sonatas at this time.

Respighi’s Violin Sonata is a significant work and deserves to have a major place in the repertoire. Then-Bergh and Schäfer perform it with disciplined musicianship and integrity and with extraordinary adroitness and power. In the dense and agitated opening Moderato the duo communicate a dramatic and intense reading of high emotional power. They provide a reading of sheer intensity in the emotional anguish and turmoil of the central movement Andante espressivo. I loved the vigorous and immediate playing in the densely concentrated and robust final movement Passacaglia - Allegro moderato ma energico.

The distinguished violinist Jascha Heifetz championed Respighi’s Violin Sonata and I understand that he recorded the work around 1950 with pianist Emanuel Bay for RCA Victor Red Seal. The catalogue contains a substantial number of versions of the sonata and those most likely to be encountered are from: Kyung-Wha Chung and pianist Krystian Zimerman, recorded in 1994, on Deutsche Grammophon 457 907-2 and 474 558-2; Lydia Mordkovitch and pianist Clifford Benson recorded the work for Chandos on CHAN9351; Ruggero Marchesi and pianist Roberto Guglielmo on the Mediterraneo label; Oscar Shumsky and pianist Artur Balsam on the Biddulph label’s ‘The historical studio recordings from 1940s to 1950s’; Elmar Oliveira and pianist Robert Koenig on Artek-0001; Ingolf Turban and pianist Katia Nemirovitch-Dantchenko, recorded in Stuttgart in 2001, on Claves 50-2109 and Anne Sophie Mutter with her pianist Lambert Orkis on ‘Recital 2000’ Deutsche Grammophon 469 503-2. I have not been able to make comparison with any of these.

Composed around 1927 the cycle of Cinque Pezzi are described in the booklet notes as, “… small tone paintings which never stray from a salon atmosphere…” To dismiss these Cinque Pezzi in this way does not do justice to their virtuosic quality and considerable emotional depth. Then-Bergh and Schäfer are serious and intense in the Romanza and vivacious and cheerful in the Aubade. I can’t agree with the view of the writer who describes the Aubade as, “imbued with a French, impressionist buoyancy.” The players are passionate and entrancing in the Madrigale and provide a delicate sense of reticence in the Berceuse. I loved the confidence of Then-Bergh and Schäfer in the Humoresque where there is a positive sense of wanting to show-off.  

The set of Sei Pezzi for violin and piano were written around 1922. In these short and colourful scores it seems that Respighi is endeavouring to position each piece in relation to each other as if they were paintings hanging in a gallery. Then-Bergh and Schäfer provide a highly attractive autumnal feel to the Berceuse. They are searching and forlorn in the Melodia and their reading of the Leggenda contains a similar feeling of despondency. I was impressed with their playing in the Valse caressante evocative of dancing to a Viennese café orchestra. While the Serenata is soothing and reflective, in the Aria the players effortlessly adjust to serious and determined playing.

No problems with the dry and clear sound quality with an impressive balance. The concise booklet notes are reasonably interesting without being especially informative. First class playing then and there is something special about Respighi’s sonata here revealed as a score that deserves wider recognition.

Michael Cookson







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