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RESPIGHI: Sinfonia Drammatica; Belfagor Ov. ‒ Orch. Philharmonique Royal de Liège / John Neschling ‒ BIS

RESPIGHI: Sinfonia Drammatica; Belfagor Ov. ‒ Orch. Philharmonique Royal de Liège / John Neschling ‒ BIS multichannel SACD BIS-2210; 70:03 (7/8/16) ****:

Respighi off the beaten track. Stimulating and enjoyable.

Jean-Pascal Vachon’s useful notes to this recording lay out the complex history of Ottorino Respighi’s musical education by way of explaining why this great big Sinfonia Drammatica sounds so unlike what we’ve come to think of as Respighi’s musical language. It’s easy to hear the influence of Respighi’s teacher Rimsky-Korsakov in his highly colorful and effective orchestration. In the numerous pieces based on medieval and Renaissance music (Ancient Airs and Dances, Concerto Gregoriano. Concerto in modo misolidio, The Birds, Church Windows, Metamorphosen), Respighi pays tribute to his teacher Luigi Torchi, a musicologist and expert on ancient music. In the Roman Trilogy, Respighi’s best-known works, we note that as his musical language matured, the composer took his lead increasingly from France and specifically Claude Debussy. However, the composer also studied with Giuseppe Martucci—whose music reflects the influence of his musical heroes, Schumann and Brahms—and with the echt German Romantic Max Bruch. Martucci happened also to be one of the first champions of Wagner in Italy. Small wonder, then, that early in Respighi’s career German influences, especially Richard Strauss and Richard Wagner, loom large.

This is patent in the Sinfonia Drammatica of 1913‒14. You’ll swear you hear echoes of Das Rheingold as well as moments that sound like outtakes from Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration and Don Juan. In fact, the overblown rhetoric and outsized orchestra (triple woodwind, six horns, organ, and a mighty percussion battery) might make you think of Strauss’s Alpine Symphony as well. But while the rhetorical gestures are Straussian, surprisingly Respighi’s work is absolute music, not an extended tone poem as we might expect. Jean-Pascal Vachon compares the structure of the work to that of César Franck’s D Minor Symphony, a comparison I wouldn’t have thought to make, but an interesting one. As in Franck’s symphony, there is a central theme that returns in each of its three movements. Again, as in the Franck, the middle movement serves as both slow movement and scherzo. But whereas Franck’s piece describes a progress from darkness into light, Respighi’s charts an almost opposite course, starting out with nervous energy and angst rather than the seeming despair of Franck’s opening movement, but ending in a very dark place indeed. While Respighi’s finale begins with minor-key histrionics, then segues into some of the most lyrical and upbeat music of the entire score, the piece concludes with a grandiose funeral march punctuated by snare drum, bass drum, tam-tam, lower brasses, and organ pedal notes.

How you react to the symphony—as noisy fustian or affecting latter-day Sturm und Drang—may well depend on what side of the bed you got out of this morning. I confess that while I find all the wailing and gnashing in Respighi’s score a bit much, and while I for sure prefer the Respighi of the Roman Trilogy and beyond, John Neschling and his Belgian band almost convince me that this is important stuff. Almost. But even if it isn’t major Respighi, the symphony is entertaining and engaging in this big-hearted performance. Plus the orchestra plays very, very well both here and in the much more characteristic Belfagor Overture, a tone poem based on the composer’s unsuccessful opera of the same name written in 1923. The overture purports to tell the story of Satan’s comically futile attempts at wooing a young woman. However, as with most tone poems, the storyline gets pretty much lost along the way. No matter, the piece is by turns menacing, mordant, gently lyrical—in short, Respighi at his best. This is another excellent performance, in fact just about the best I’ve heard although there are good alternative recordings from Edward Downes and Vladimir Ashkenazy, among others. BIS’s SACD sound recording, however, is in a class by itself: big, bright, airy but with plenty of impact.

—Lee Passarella

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