About this Recording
8.220152 - RESPIGHI: Concerto Gregoriano / Poema Autunnale
English 

Ottorino Respighi (1879 –1936)
Concerto Gregoriano • Poema Autunnale

Italy’s enormous successes in opera rather shouldered other forms of music aside. It fell to a group of composers born in or near the 1880s to restore the country’s prowess in the concert hall. The conductor and Late-Romantic composer Giuseppe Martucci had already lit the torch; and it was up to “the generation of the 1880s”, led by Ildebrando Pizzetti, Alfredo Casella, Ottorino Respighi and Gian Francesco Malipiero, to carry it forward. Their emergence coincided with the efforts of Arturo Toscanini and various dedicated teachers to advance orchestral and instrumental playing.

Respighi was the eldest of the group and was actually born in 1879, in Bologna. His father taught the piano and as a child he learnt both piano and violin. At the local Liceo Musicale he was taught violin and viola by Federico Sarti and composition by Luigi Torchi, who ignited his interest in early music. In his last year his composition teacher was the Liceo director Martucci, who also had a great influence on him. In the winters of 1900–01 and 1902–03 he worked as principal viola at the Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg, getting to know the workings of the orchestra from the inside and having a few crucial composition lessons from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. In 1902 he spent some months with Max Bruch in Berlin. Back in Bologna he worked in the orchestra and as violist of the well-known Quintetto Mugellini (with Bruno Mugellini, piano; Mario Corti and Giuseppe Fantuzzi, violins and Antonio Certani, cello) but also kept up his piano playing; and in 1906 began transcribing 17th- and 18th-century music. He spent most of 1908 in Berlin, where he had a success with his transcription of Monteverdi’s Lamento d’Arianna. In 1913 he moved to Rome to teach at the Liceo Musicale (later Conservatorio) di Santa Cecilia and in 1919 he wed one of his students,the mezzo-soprano and composer Elsa Olivieri-Sangiacomo (1894–1996): she was an active participant in his career; and after his early death in 1936 she ensured that his legacy lasted.

It was Elsa Respighi, a scholar of Gregorian chant, who drew her husband’s attention to plainsong as a vehicle for orchestral music. Already engaged on his series of Ancient Airs and Dances and other works reflecting music of the past in a modern light, Respighi needed no urging; and in 1919–21 he produced the Tre preludie sopra melodie gregoriane for piano. When his violinist colleague Mario Corti wanted a concerto in 1921, he again turned to the old chants for inspiration. According to his wife, he said “how wonderful it would be to recast those magnificent melodies in a new language of sounds, free from the rigidly formal Catholic Liturgy … and revive the indestructible gem of real human values contained therein”. He used the Easter sequence “Victimae paschali laudes” in the second movement and headed the finale “Alleluja”; and the work was permeated by the spirit of the chant. It was his Third Violin Concerto, following the Concerto all’antica of 1908 (the first, from 1903, was left to be completed by another hand after his death). Respighi opts for a large orchestra—two flutes, two oboes, cor anglais, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, celesta, harp, timpani and strings—but deploys it subtly so that the full ensemble is rarely heard. The writing for both violin and orchestra is very beautiful and English speaking audiences will immediately notice similarities with The Lark Ascending, especially the modal nature of the music atmospheric use of double-stops in the solo violin part. As Respighi cannot have known Vaughan Williams’s piece, any congruences arise naturally from the musical material. In many ways the concerto can be seen as an extended rhapsody in three movements with a violin obbligato, as there is little attempt to oppose the soloist to the orchestra, or to excite with conventional violin virtuosity. One early commentator, Philip Hale, felt that the soloist took “the role of cantor in the old religious services, while the orchestra represents the choir of believers”. After a shimmering start to the opening Andante tranquillo, a Gregorian tinged theme emerges and the violin enters to rhapsodise on it. A more rhythmic second idea is introduced by the orchestra and the full ensemble is unleashed for the first time. The violin takes up this second theme, which dominates until the cadenza, allowing the soloist to mull over both themes and leading straight into the Andante espressivo e sostenuto. Opening with a beautiful theme on the solo violin, this lovely effusion is another rhapsodic movement, almost chamber-like in places. A bold horn theme—Respighi’s “Alleluja”—launches the finale and is taken up by the soloist, but apart from a second stirring theme later on, the movement is mostly taken up with rhapsodising until the violin reviews the first energetic theme and the concerto ends in a burst of activity. Corti gave the première on 2 February 1922 at the Augusteo in Rome, with Bernardino Molinari conducting the resident Santa Cecilia Orchestra, but it was not especially well received, which disappointed Respighi. The concerto was published that year. Although he did not give the U.S. première, the great American violinist Albert Spalding took it up and reportedly was an ideal interpreter. The first British performance was given in Manchester in 1928 by Arthur Catterall, with the Hallé Orchestra under Sir Hamilton Harty, while Adila Fachiri played both the orchestral version and the composer’s piano reduction. In 1933 the young Arrigo Pelliccia introduced the concerto to Berlin.

The Poema Autunnale of 1925 was also written for Corti and dedicated to him. Once again Respighi ventured into Lark Ascending territory, as much of the writing was modal, creating the desired archaic atmosphere, and double-stops were much used for effect. The composer had in mind a programme conveying the “sweet melancholy” of an autumn day, enlivened at one point by a Dionysian dance until finally the great god Pan “wandered lonely across the fields under falling golden leaves”. Rather than have the woodwinds evoke Pan’s pipes, Respighi allotted this task to the solo violin. The première was given in Berlin by Georg Kulenkampff, on 12 January 1926, with Emil Bohnke conducting the Berlin Symphony Orchestra. The first American performances were with piano, which rather defeated the object of this romantic tone poem: Sante lo Priore played it at Aeolian Hall, New York, in 1926, partnered by Maria Carreras; and in 1927 Respighi himself accompanied Francis Macmillen at Carnegie Hall. In Italy, apart from Corti, the distinguished violinist Arrigo Serato championed the piece, giving the Roman première at the Augusteo in 1929 with Molinari.

For decades Respighi’s violin music rather went out of fashion, but in more recent times a number of well-known violinists have performed it in concert or recorded it. The present recordings by Takako Nishizaki of perhaps the two most beautiful works, made in 1983, played their part in the revival.

Tully Potter


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