* OTTORINO RESPIGHI: Belfagor Overture; Orchestral Suite: Belkis, Queen of Sheba; Four Symphonic Impressions: Church Windows – Radio Philharmonic Orchestra Holland/ Vladimir Ashkenazy – Exton multichannel SACD OVCL-00216, 60:37 [Distr. by Allegro] *****:
Wow – what a successful presentation of these wide-screen Technicolor scores by Respighi! I haven’t been so bowled over by a recording of the colorful Church Windows since the 1956 Mercury Living Presence mono LP with Antal Dorati and the Minneapolis Symphony. Audiophiles everywhere got goosebumps over the loud smashing tam-tam crash which comes at the conclusion of the St. Michael the Archangel movement – representing the closing of the gates of hell. And some of us with the more primitive cartridges and tonearms of the era were subject to our pickup jumping right out of the groove, as it also tended to do on Telarc’s 1812 Overture.
With more classical CDs taking fuller advantage of the 80-minute capacity of CDs, we are often now getting three of Respighi’s symphonic impressions, rather than just the old pairing of The Pines and Fountains of Rome. (The fourth is Roman Festivals, which was paired with Church Windows on the Mercury vinyl.) One of the best stereo CD Church Windows (also available on vinyl) is Reference Recording’s, with Keith Clark conducting the Pacific Symphony Orchestra. But this SACD is the winner with its exciting performance under Ashkenazy and its stunning dynamic range, surround sound, and exceptionally detailed resolution.
The other three church windows (and movements) in Respighi’s work are “The Flight Into Egypt,” The Matins of St Clare,” and the concluding “St. Gregory the Great.” The final movement brings in pipe organ and brass section in a huge climax. All the works make use of Gregorian melodies in keeping with the church window theme. The studio perspective of the Radio Philharmonic’s space in Hilversum, Holland is well-conveyed by the 5.0 hi-res surround sound provided by Exton.
The Belfagor Overture is a lively opener, a sort of scherzo with a demonic edge. The suite from Belkis Queen of Sheba is taken from the composer’s original 80-minute complete ballet, which not only called for a huge orchestra but also sitars, a huge percussion section, wind machines, off-stage brass, a chorus, some vocal soloists, and a narrator. Understandably, this orchestral suite would be likely to gain performances more easily. The subject of both works is the love between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The four movements are titled: The Dream of Solomon, The Dance of Belkis at Dawn, War Dance & Orgiastic Dance. I think that pretty much tells the story musically. The whole thing is carried on Rimsky-Korsakovian orchestrations with references to Hebrew and Arabic music as perceived in the composer’s era. Sensual and colorful stuff.
This disc has a 2006 date on it but has evidently only been distributed in the U.S. recently, which is how we are covering it so late. From online postings it appears that the original release only had notes in Japanese, so we can be thankful this one has a separate booklet in English included; as well as the price being a bit more reasonable than ordering direct from Japan.
— John Sunier