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8.220176 - RESPIGHI: Concerto in Modo Misolidio / Three Preludes on Gregorian Themes

Ottorino Respighi (1879–1936)
Concerto in Modo Misolidio for Piano and Orchestra • Three Preludes on Gregorian Themes


Respighi’s five published instrumental concertos belong to that strangely neglected group of works which are overshadowed by his popular Roman trilogy of tone poems and the admirably orchestrated suites of Antiche danze ed arie. Besides the mystical Concerto Gregoriano for violin and orchestra of 1921 and the Concerto a cinque (a sort of concerto grosso for five soloists, including piano, and strings) of 1933, Respighi’s catalogue lists three works for piano solo and orchestra.

The one-movement Concerto in A minor belongs to the composer’s conservatory period and was written in 1902 between his two periods in Russia as a composition pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov and as first violist with the St. Petersburg Opera. That background allows one to guess at its stylistic components, although the German-oriented influence of Respighi’s Bologna teachers must not be overlooked.

The Toccata for piano and orchestra, written in 1928 and first performed, as was the Concerto in Modo Misolidio, in New York’s Carnegie Hall with the composer at the piano, is a testimonial to Respighi’s final return to less opulent orchestral writing and to a more explicit neoclassicism. Its Bachian title, however, cannot mask its identity as a genuine concerto.

The New York première of the Concerto in Modo Misolidio under the baton of Willem Mengelberg took place on the last day of 1925. Two months later the same conductor, with Respighi as a soloist again, presented it during a Respighi festival at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw.

The Concerto was written in an incredibly short time during the summer of 1925, when Poema Autunnale for violin and orchestra and large portions of the opera La Campana Sommersa were also composed. Respighi had no difficulty in committing quantities of such differing music to paper, since he considered this final stage of composition a somewhat mechanical transfer of already completed works, which might have had a mental gestation period of two or more years. The manuscripts were immediately handed over to the publishers, who enjoyed the economically attractive prospect of possessing works which would never again be revised by the composer. Respighi’s almost superstitious abhorrence of past activities often reached extremes. Even during moments leaving a cheering audience with the following day’s programme already occupying his thoughts.

Respighi’s puzzling modesty led him to declare that he had written the Concerto in Modo Misolidio with his own nonprofessional pianism in mind. Self-taught as a pianist, he had devoted serious study to the violin and the viola. Later, having abandoned those two instruments, he enjoyed playing the piano parts of his concerto and chamber works on numerous international tours, as well as appearing as a conductor.

There are pianists today who shudder at the technical difficulties of the Concerto in Modo Misolidio, deeming it unpianistic, but one approaches their condemnations with suspicion. The present writer has been offered such opinions by international stars, who are restricted to box-office repertoire and who cannot interrupt their tours to learn seldom-performed, demanding pieces.

The score of the Concerto in Modo Misolidio bears the motto “Omnes gentes plaudit minibus” (“clap your hands, all ye nations”…Psalm XLVII), and to the unfamiliar ear the music sounds quite exotic, similar to Respighi’s Concerto Gregoriano for violin and orchestra, Quartetto Dorico and Tre Preludi sopra Melodie Gregoriane. All are eloquent testimony to the composer’s deep attachment to the musical world of early Christianity. Inspired by hymns in the church modes, the works seldom quote actual melodies contained in the Graduale Romanum. Instead Respighi created new themes of his own in the spirit of those ancient melodies. The mixolydian mode is a G major scale with F in place of F sharp, transposable with the same intervallic pattern into any other key. Because of the flattened leading note in the dominant seventh chord, the mixolydian mode on G resolves into C major. Its character is generally solemn, but Respighi’s developmental skill and orchestral artistry provide a whole range of feeling from majestic grandeur to lyrical serenity.

The first movement, Moderato, opens with a quotation of the Introitus viri Galilaei from the Ascension day liturgy, brightly presented by the piano, first alone and subsequently in dialogue with the orchestra. The movement is built on two further themes: one is heard after an early and brief fantasy-like development; the other a canon-like idea in 9/4, leads after a new development to an inspired and most original cadenza. A mystical mood prevails at the end, suggestive of a murmuring congregation accompanied by the sound of bells echoing within the vaults of a cathedral.

The following Lento is a fantasy in ternary form on Gregorian modes. The central episode features a solemn dialogue between piano arabesques over sustained string chords and the brass section. A passionate development follows, then relapses into a quasi-pastoral mood, introduced by a melancholy oboe melody and ending in a capricious cadenza. That leads without break into the grand third movement, an Allegro energico passacaglia in the principal tonality of A-flat major. Following Brahms’ example, Respighi employs the passacaglia’s bass theme freely in the middle and upper voice as well. The movement is a sequence of eighteen brilliantly transformed and orchestrated variations on a somewhat jazz-like, syncopated theme. A later variation takes the form of a colourful cadenza. This precedes a lovely, pastoral Allegretto and a climax of decidedly Rachmaninov-like luxuriance before the brilliantly affirmative final restatement of the theme.

Tre Preludi sopra Melodie Gregoriane, a masterwork of Respighi’s small catalogue of solo piano music and Italy’s piano literature in general, should be appreciated here not only as a most appropriate “filler” but also as the composer’s first homage to his beloved Gregorian modes. Respighi owed his acquaintance with Gregorian chant to his wife and former pupil Elsa, holder of a degree in Gregorian chant and a gifted singer and composer in her own right. During their honeymoon in the hills of Anacapri, Elsa would sing daily as her wedding gift to Respighi the themes of the Graduale Romanum. Under this spell Respighi became more and more enamoured of the ancient melodies, and he composed the Tre Preludi. They were apparently written in 1919, thought the manuscript bears the final date of 1921 along with an unexpected dedication to Alfredo Casella.

The first prelude in G-sharp minor is a nocturnal piece with passionate, hymn-like crescendos. Its motif reappears metamorphosed as a bass figuration in the second prelude, a tempestuous piece in C-sharp minor with a short, visionary episode of cadenza-like character. The final F-sharp minor prelude in 5/4 meter is a lament over a bell-like ostinato accompaniment. Descending arpeggios in the bass create an effect perhaps more evocative of an Oriental caravan than of a sacral procession.

Later Respighi made rare exception to his notorious refusal to rework his earlier compositions, and he followed Elsa’s suggestion to orchestrate the pieces. With the addition of a fourth movement, they became his Vetrate di Chiesa. The origin as absolute music of the four “symphonic impressions” of 1927 is generally ignored, and it would be out of place here to quote the aptly conceived titles and programmatic texts which were inscribed on the score. Since gramophone recordings of Vetrate have long been available, the Respighi connoisseur may not find it easy to forget the descriptions and the luxuriant orchestral sound when discovering the original in this, its first recording.

English adaptation by David Nelson

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