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Ottorino RESPIGHI (1879-1936)
Trittico Botticelliano (Botticelli Triptych) (1927) [20:06]
Il tramonto (The Sunset) (1914) [16:24]
Vetrate di chiesa (Church Windows) (1926) [28:49]
Anna Caterina Antonacci (soprano)
Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège/John Neschling
rec. 2016, Salle Philharmonique, Liège, Belgium
Italian text & English translation included
BIS BIS-2250 SACD [66:26]

I’ve acquired and admired the four previous volumes in John Neschling’s Respighi series for BIS. Volume 1 was made while he was still principal conductor of the São Paolo Symphony Orchestra in his native Brazil (1997-2009). Subsequent instalments have featured the Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège (Vol. 2 ~ Vol. 3 ~ Vol. 4). This latest release in the series finds him once more in Liège.

I was very pleased to find that Neschling has selected the Shelley setting, Il tramonto. It was written, originally with string quartet accompaniment, for a mezzo-soprano, Chiarina Fino Savio. However, here we find a soprano taking up the piece and singing it, as many singers do, with a string orchestra to accompany her. I first came to know the piece through a 1987 Hyperion recording by the mezzo Carol Madalin with the English Chamber Orchestra under Alfredo Bonavera (CDA66290). It’s a wonderful, sensuous piece, requiring warmth and expression from the performers. The Madalin recording is a very good one but I think this new BIS version trumps it. For one thing, their SACD sound is superb, conveying all the warmth and richness of the performance yet always maintaining clarity. However, quality of recorded sound alone would count for little were not the music-making of an equally high standard.

Anna Caterina Antonacci’s singing is simply ravishing. Her tone is rich, full and lustrous. Furthermore, she caresses the words most expressively. In the first part of the work, where Shelley speaks of the young lovers, the music is golden and sensuous. But then, when Isabel wakes in the morning to find her lover dead beside her in bed there is, of course, a darker hue to the music (from about 7:20). Isabel’s grief eventually translates into noble acceptance of her lot in life. Miss Antonacci conveys all this marvellously and she is supported expertly by Neschling, under whose leadership the Liège strings play with subtlety and finesse. This is an exceptional performance.

Trittico Botticelliano is designated by Respighi as a work ‘per piccola orchestra’. Indeed, compared to many of his other orchestral works the scoring is modest, yet so skilled an orchestrator is Respighi that the listener never feels a lack of colour or even opulence. ‘La Primavera’ is full of freshness and optimism as the promise of Spring shines through the music. Neschling and his players do Respighi proud in a performance that is full of verve. ‘L’adorazione dei Magi’ opens with aa beautifully voiced bassoon solo. In those bars the principal bassoonist lays down the gauntlet to his fellow wind soloists and they take it up with relish. Throughout this movement the work of the Liège woodwind players can only be described as classy. I loved this movement. From a calm beginning ‘La nascita di Venere’ builds in intensity via a long, expectant crescendo. Neschling controls this splendidly but then makes the most of the sudden falling away in volume so that, as annotator Jean-Pascal Vachon suggests, it is as if we see the newly-born Venus approaching us from a distance. Beautifully played and marvellously engineered, this is a fresh and distinguished performance of the Trittico.
So far in this programme John Neschling has given us music that shows Respighi using relatively modest orchestral forces. In Vetrate di Chiesa, however, he comes out with all guns blazing. It seems scarcely credible when one listens to these colourful and opulently scored pieces that the first three of them began life as piano solos based on Gregorian chant. (The fourth piece was freshly composed by Respighi specifically for Vetrate.) Also, Jean-Pascal Vachon reminds us that the three piano pieces were untitled; it was only when Respighi transformed them into orchestral dress that he added titles to the movements.

‘La fuga in Egitto’ suggests a caravan calmly making its way across the desert by night. The scoring is suitably exotic though the dynamics are restrained. The Liège orchestra offers a sumptuous performance, the ambience of which is enhanced by the rich BIS recording. ‘San Michele Arcangelo’ depicts a battle in the heavens between St Michael and the Dragon, each supported by their respective angelic armies. The music is strong and turbulent and the present performance is thrilling. Once again, I admired in equal measure the engineering. There’s wonderful depth and range to the sound and the recording seems to me to be very truthful. At 3:12 a sweet-toned and calm solo trumpet is heard. I presume this depicts the restoration of order following the victory of St Michael and his cohorts. This episode is played with great sensitivity before the short coda, which is a wild celebration. St Claire is depicted in music of gentle opulence in ‘Il mattutino di Santa Chiara’; here the music glows gently and Neschling’s performance is touching.

‘San Gregorio Magno’, the piece newly composed by Respighi for this orchestral collection depicts Pope St Gregory I in all his pontifical splendour. At the start the orchestra mimics tolling bells which summon us to church. When we arrive at the church (around 2:30) it’s not so much a church that we enter as a massive basilica where mass is being celebrated. The music builds in a seemingly endless crescendo until the organ thunders majestically (4:56). You think things can’t get any more opulent but Respighi has other ideas; in terms of musical splendour, this is a gift that goes on giving – as does the present performance. Eventually the music becomes calmer but around 8:00 Respighi gathers himself for the Big Finish. Hereabouts, the sonority of the bass instruments is especially impressive and the orchestration is decked in the aural equivalent of reds and golds. The sonic splendour of this performance is emphasised by the mighty thwacks on the bass drum. The piece comes to a spectacular conclusion; can medieval Papal majesty have been depicted more splendidly in music?

The final movement of Vetrate di Chiesa is the musical equivalent of a Technicolor spectacle and it’s stunningly realised here. However, the joy of this particular programme is its subtlety and variety. Yes, we experience Respighi the colourful orchestrator writ large but we also hear a good deal of music that is much more finely nuanced and I’m glad about that. This is a nicely balanced compilation. Throughout the programme the performances are superb and they are complemented by engineering that even by BIS standards is terrific. Having heard all the previous releases in this series I do hope there’ll be more to come. I wonder, for example, if John Neschling would consider another Shelley setting for solo voice and orchestra: La Sensitiva (1914). That might lie a bit low for Anna Caterina Antonacci but since she’s been so successful in another mezzo piece on this present disc I’d love to hear her in La Sensitiva also.

If you’ve been following the John Neschling Respighi series then don’t delay in adding this fine SACD to your collection.

John Quinn

Previous review: Dan Morgan (Recording of the Month)



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