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Robert R. Reilly
Catholic News Agency, July 2011

A label that is new to me, Newton Classics, seems to be offering repackaged recordings from the early stereo era at budget prices. One such is its two-CD release of the music of Ottorino Respighi (1879–1936), all conducted by Antal Dorati. The first CD contains the three suites of Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances, delectable music that is irresistible in its attraction. The performances here are by the Philharmonia Hungarica. …the London Symphony Orchestra and the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra share the honors in performing The Birds, Brazilian Impressions, The Fountains of Rome, and The Pines of Rome (880-2048).

Michael Cookson
MusicWeb International, July 2011

It is good that the Newton Classics label is reissuing classic recordings from the extensive back catalogue of EMI, Decca, DG and Mercury. It’s a while since I heard the orchestral scores of Respighi and I was delighted to have this double disc set from Newton Classics that contains the more famous works from his legacy. Of his best known scores only the Church Windows, Three Botticelli Pictures and Roman Festivals are not included. If one looks deeper into Respighi’s works list there are some splendid scores to be discovered such as the Suite for strings and organIn the Antique Style’, The Ballad of the Gnomes, Adagio with Variations for Cello and Orchestra, Concerto Gregoriano for violin and orchestra, Quartetto dorico and the Violin Sonata in B minor.

On the first disc the three suites of Ancient Dances and Airs in this Dorati recording has achieved legendary status such is the quality of the playing.

Respighi was fascinated by his musical heritage and his suites of the Ancient Dances and Airs are his arrangements of pieces for lute from Italian and French Renaissance and early Baroque composers. The majority of the music was taken from a collection of lute music published by the Italian musicologist Oscar Chilesotti. Respighi’s contrasts of brilliant orchestral colours, by turns robust and delicately transparent are extremely agreeable. The Philharmonia Hungarica under their Maestro Dorati was playing at an impressive peak. There is often a courtly and elegant feel to this music especially in the opening episodes of each of the suites: Ballett, Il Conte Orlando; Laura soave and Italiana. From suite one with its pizzicato introduction Villanella there is a quasi-religious feel to the gentle writing. The vivacious and fleet-footed Passo mezzo e mascherada is genial and carefree. From suite two the weighty Bergamasca is briskly taken. With its memorable folk-like melody the central section is lightly textured with an attractive harpsichord part. Suite three has a delightful mix of shiftily shifting moods ranging from merriment and dance to the forceful and rhythmic to music of a weary mournful tread.

Disc two offers four of Respighi’s most enduringly popular scores upon which his reputation as composer is predominantly based. For these recordings Dorati uses two separate orchestras. The earliest performances, The Birds and Brazilian Impressions were recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1957 at Watford Town Hall. Almost three years later the Fountains of Rome and Pines of Rome were recorded with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra in 1960 at the University of Minnesota.

The justly popular suite for small orchestra The Birds from 1927 is Respighi’s attempt at transcribing birdsong into musical notation. Each of the five pieces is based on melodies from the seventeenth and eighteenth century by four European composers principally the Italian, Pasquini. The Prelude deploys Pasquini’s memorable and much admired melody. In the remaining pieces The dove, The hen, The nightingale and The cuckoo can be found many fine examples of Respighi’s cheerful and witty writing. At times in The cuckoo I was reminded of Copland’s prairie music of the great outdoors.

From 1928 Brazilian Impressions is a three movement orchestral suite based on popular folk melodies that Respighi had heard in Brazil. The opening score Tropical Night has a convincing sultry nocturnal feel laced with hints of the tango. Following a visit to a snake farm the central movement Butantan is a successful and suitably edgy depiction of a snakes slithering through the undergrowth. Concluding the score is the colourful and pleasing Song and Dance based on folk music heard at a carnival.

In both suites The Birds and Brazilian Impressions the London Symphony Orchestra play well but do not quite deliver the necessary polish and controlled exuberance to allow the music to be heard at its best.

Finally we have Respighi’s two most famous scores: the highly descriptive symphonic poems the Fountains of Rome and Pines of Rome. These cemented his international reputation. From 1916 the Fountains of Rome is a musical depiction of his inspirations from four Roman fountains. A languid scene, The Valle Giulia Fountain at Dawn has a distinctly bucolic feel. Buoyant and excitable, The Triton Fountain in the Morning conveys a convincing impression of water spouts. With heavier textures the Trevi Fountain at Mid-day commences with solemnity that develops into euphoria. With notable brass contributions the music represents a scene of Neptune’s chariot pulled by seahorses. At times I was reminded of film scores to classic Hollywood epics of the silver screen. The Villa Medici fountain at Sunset provides a pastoral conclusion with notable woodwind contributions. Tender and affectionately expressive playing leads onwards to a distant tolling bell heralding the ebb of the music.

Pines of Rome a tone poem for large orchestra, is again cast in four movements: in effect a series of nature impressions. The Pines of the Villa Borghese represents excitable and energetic children at play in the pine groves. In this colourful and thrilling score I was strongly reminded of music that might accompany a swashbuckling movie romp with Errol Flynn. I did wonder if Korngold knew this piece. A shadows and mystery inhabit the movement Pines near a Catacomb. Again that strong sense of an epic Hollywood ‘sword and sandal’ film score is evident. Strongly impressionist in disposition The Pines of the Janiculum is lush and tender. A recording of a Nightingale can be heard over tremolo strings. So much for twentieth century Avant-garde composers writing music for orchestra and tape. A thrilling sense of foreboding fills the air in The Pines of the Appian Way with a distinct Middle Eastern flavour suffusing the writing. It feels as if a marching army can be heard approaching in the distance, coming closer and closer, resulting in a thunderous climax.

On these final two scores Dorati conducts the Minneapolis Symphony. Although the performance is more than acceptable these scores would have benefited from a higher calibre of playing than that provided by the Minneapolis Orchestra.

This Newton Classics release is almost perfect for anyone wanting a double set of Respighi’s best known scores. In addition the super budget price makes this a real bargain.

Phil Muse
Audio Video Club of Atlanta, May 2011

Newton Classics, the Dutch firm that combs through the back catalogs of the old PolyGram consortium (Decca-London, Philips, DGG) for choice material to reissue in quality remasterings at an attractive price for consumers, has done it again with an argosy of Respighi suites. They were formerly released on LP during the first decade of stereo, and then digitally reissued in CD on Mercury Living Presence. These re-incarnations from the great era of analog recording sound great in the present 2-CD slim line set. They are: Ancient Airs and Dances, Suites 1-3, Gli Ucelli (The Birds), Brazilian Impressions, Fountains of Rome, and Pines of Rome.

If you are a long-time audiophile, there’s probably little about these recordings that you don’t already know. They represent all the elements that should constitute great recording: a maestro that really loved and understood scintillatingly bold and colorful music, orchestras (the Philharmonia Hungarica, London and Minneapolis Symphonies) that were very much in top form, advanced recording techniques, and music that was unabashedly accessible to the ordinary classical listener. The music itself has long outlived the pettiness of some contemporary audiences and critics (provoked, for instance, by Respighi’s daring introduction of a phonograph of an actual nightingale in the Pines of the Janiculum tableau in Pines of Rome). The present recordings are marked by a zestful interpretive insight that shows Dorati as one who knows just when to “take it big” and when such a procedure would be too much for the good of the music. The recording process captures all the fine details in the music without sacrificing its monumental quality.

Ottorino Respighi was a native of Bologna, Italy who studied composition with Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov for five months while he was an orchestral musician in St. Petersburg, Russia. Clearly, Respighi learned a lot about harmony and orchestration from the older master. He went even further in his uncanny ability to hear the murmurings and rustlings of the natural world, sounds that conjure up auditory pictures of that world at dawn (the Fountain of the Villa Giulia and the Pines of the Villa Borghese) and in the evening twilight (Fountain of the Villa Medici, Pines of the Janiculum). The conjured impressions in Gli Ucelli of Dove, Hen, Nightingale, and Cuckoo, all based on and transfiguring the originals by composers of the baroque, show another aspect of his ear attuned to the sounds of nature. And in Brazilian Impressions, nestled between an evocation of the tropical night and one of frenetic Brazilian night life, we have in the tableau Butantan another kind of impression of natural life. It’s one you might not be comfortable with if you experience troubling dreams, as the title refers to the state research farm for venomous reptiles. This is the only work of music I can think of that has the rare expressive marking strisciante (slitheringly)!

The three suites of Ancient Airs and Dances, a tribute to the music of the Renaissance from a master of the 20th century, are old friends of mine. My particular favorite is Suite No. 2, which features a rousing country dance (Danza rustica) where you can almost see and hear the footfalls, and concludes with a heart melting viola solo in the Burgamasca.

John J. Puccio
Classical Candor, April 2011

With the major record companies releasing fewer and fewer new or reissued recordings, it’s good to have a company like Newton Classics taking up the slack. They have been re-releasing older classic material from Decca, DG, EMI, Mercury, Philips, and the like in original sound and at a reasonable price. Such is the case here, with this two-disc, 2011 reissue of orchestral works by Italian composer Ottorino Respighi (1879–1936), which contains five of his best-known, most-popular pieces. While the performances and sound do vary somewhat in quality, with conductor Antal Dorati leading three different orchestras in three different recordings, it’s hard to argue about the cost.

Disc one contains the best performances and the best sound in the set. However, it is also probably the least well known music. Respighi was primarily a composer of tone poems, little musical impressions, his work based largely on sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth-century forms and ideas. The first disc contains only one set of compositions, Respighi’s complete Ancient Airs and Dances, three suites that he wrote in 1917, 1923, and 1932, based on various Renaissance works for lute by Vincenzo Galilei, Simone Molinaro, and others. Dorati recorded the suites in 1958 with the Philharmonia Hungarica for the Mercury label in their “Living Presence” series, and when Philips remastered most of the titles in the old Mercury series for CD in the Nineties, they thought so highly of Dorati’s Ancient Airs and Dances, it was one of the first things they brought out.

So, here’s the thing:  If you don’t already own Dorati’s performance of the Ancient Airs and Dances either on the regular CD or the later SACD, this is a chance to get the stereo version in a two-disc set for essentially the price of one disc. The interpretations are elegant, stately, gracious, and infectious, moving perhaps more slowly than some rival renditions, and not done on period instruments, but with the utmost feeling and attention to historical detail. The music is wonderfully melodic, rhapsodic even. Almost equally as important, the sound is smooth and warm yet entirely natural and realistic. In comparing this first disc to my older copy of the work on a reissued Philips/Mercury CD, I found no difference between them.  In other words, you’re getting the best-possible mastering of the product.

Although disc two contains four more of Respighi’s works, his most-popular material, I can’t say I liked Dorati’s performances in them anywhere nearly as much as I did in his Ancient Airs and Dances. The disc opens with Gli uccelli (The Birds), which the composer wrote in 1927. He based each segment of the work on Baroque music that imitated various birds. We get a “Prelude” based on music by Bernardo Pasquini, “La colomba” (“The Dove”) on music by Jacques de Callot, “La gallina” (“The Hen”) on Jean-Philippe Rameau, “L’Usignolo” (“The Nightengale”) on an unknown writer, and “Il Cucu” (“The Cuckoo”) on music by Bernardo Pasquini. These pieces are more festive and playful than the Ancient Airs and Dances, even if Dorati doesn’t approach them in quite as lively a spirit or with as much charm as some of his competitors…

The second disc ends with Respighi’s big guns, the Fountains of Rome (1916) and the Pines of Rome (1924), both suites played by the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra and recorded by Mercury in 1960. Unfortunately, these are the least effective of Dorati’s performances and the least well recorded.

Nevertheless, as I say, when you’re getting the second Dorati disc practically as a gift from Newton Classics, who can argue?

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11:39:10 PM, 5 March 2015
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