In October of 2013, Brilliant Classics completed a project to record the complete orchestral music of Ottorino Respighi. These were released in a series of four volumes, each containing two CDs, with the first volume having come out in March of 2012. All performances were by the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma under the direction of Francesco La Vecchia. At the end of this past June, Brilliant Classics released the complete set in a single box, whose first, second, third, and fourth pairs of CDs corresponded to the volumes of the original releases. To the best of my knowledge, these are all Brilliant Classics “originals,” rather than reissues of previously recorded material.
Respighi may well have been the most misunderstood composer of my student days. Back when I was in high school, I had learned from my father that the performance of the Pines of Rome suite required a record player, since Respighi wanted to include the “real” sound of a nightingale in the “Pines of the Janiculum” section. My high school music teacher insisted that this could not be the case, since Respighi would not have known about record players. (For the record, Respighi was born in 1879, two years after Thomas Edison had invented the phonograph. Pines of Rome was composed in 1924, several years after the death of Enrico Caruso, whose recordings were known to just about every opera-lover and probably every Italian!)
My university years brought me in touch with much better-informed music teachers. However, most of them saw themselves as priests of the temple of serial music. For them Respighi’s blatantly tonal music was anathema; and his interest in easily-followed tone poems amount to simplistic pandering to audiences that preferred to remain safe with the accessible tunes of the nineteenth century. Ironically, none of them chose to attack Respighi on political grounds, in spite of suggestions that Julius Caesar’s marching troops along the Appian Way at the end of Pines of Rome might actually be those of Benito Mussolini; but the current opinion is that Respighi tried very hard to remain apolitical after Mussolini came to power in 1922.
None of this is to suggest that Pines of Rome is in some way iconic of all the music that Respighi composed for orchestra; nor could that case be made for his complete “Roman trilogy.” (Pines of Rome was preceded by Fountains of Rome, composed in 1917, and followed by Roman Festivals, composed in 1928.) On the other hand, there is some value in taking a more positive view that all three of these pieces present an impressive variety of highly expressive approaches to instrumentation and orchestration, so expressive that they probably influenced many of the composers responsible for particularly effective film scores, even if John Williams is one of the few composers to have explicitly acknowledged that influence. (On the other hand we would do best to overlook the indigestible hash that the Disney crew made out of the Pines of Rome section in Fantasia 2000.)
The bottom line is that the tone poem was one of Respighi’s best vehicles, because it allowed him to exercise some of his best skills. Through this selection the attentive listener can appreciate just how far those skills extended beyond that “Roman trilogy.” However, there is another skill set that comes into play, which is his appreciation of music history, particularly where the pre-Baroque Italian repertoire is involved. Note, for example, the presence of plainchant in “Pines Near a Catacomb;” but also note the three suites of music originally composed for lute or the two instrumental suites that similarly use pre-Baroque forms as points of departure. These only seldom reveal their sources in any recognizable form; but the same could be said of Thomas Beecham’s treatment of George Frideric Handel’s music for the ballet “The Great Elopement,” from which he extracted a suite entitled Love in Bath.
Basically, any one of the many individual compositions in this collection has much to inform the serious listener, not to mention the would-be composer. Thus, what matters most is not the question of whether this music is “genuine” (whatever that means) but whether such a listener will be so informed by the performances on this recording. In that respect there is little to fault La Vecchia and his interactions with the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma over the course of all eight of these CDs. He may not go as far “over the top” as Arturo Toscanini may have done in his recording sessions with RCA (assuming that we are listening to Toscanini and not RCA recording engineers); but La Vecchia conducts each piece with a keen sense of how much expressiveness is required without leaving the listener to wonder if he is wallowing in excess. He has found the sweet spot between highly-charged rhetoric and clarity of execution; and it is rare to find that balance among the new generation of conductors seeking to “rediscover” Respighi.