About this Recording
8.223595 - RESPIGHI: Primavera (La) / 4 Liriche

Ottorino Respighi (1879 - 1936)

Ottorino Respighi (1879 - 1936)

La Primavera


The works of Respighi here recorded are based on texts by Armenian poets. Since Armenia was historically the first state to adopt Christianity as its official religion, Armenian epic and narrative poetry was in Christian hands and mainly of ecclesiastical inspiration. Nerses Shenorhali was the most famous and prolific poet and song-writer of the twelfth century and many of his works, prose-poems, hymns and riddles, are still popular today. Gosdandin Erzengasti, one of the first serious poets of the thirteenth to fourteenth centuries, wrote, in addition to religious and folk poetry, about romantic love and nature. His many allegories on the subject of Spring, handed down orally, were not fully collected until the 1860s. Constant Zarian, a contemporary of Respighi, living at that time in Istanbul, clearly seemed to derive inspiration from Armenian poetry of some six centuries earlier and it may even be that many of his texts, written by himself in Italian, are adaptations rather than original works.


There is no precise record of Respighi's contacts with Zarian and his interest in Armenian poetry might already have been aroused during the periods he spent in Russia in 1900-1901 and 1902. In a letter of February 1917 he mentions his intention of setting Zarian's poem Voci di Chiesa (Church Voices). After abandoning this project, it appears that in July 1918 he had started working on La Primavera (Spring), a poem from a cycle by Zarian, the first part of which has the title Sirvard, figlia della terra (Sirvard, daughter of the earth). Sketches of a further cantata, Inverno (Winter), have come to light and it seems that two symphonic poems without vocal parts, Estate (Summer) and Autunno (Autumn), were also planned. Poema autunnale for violin and orchestra (1925) may have belonged to this unfinished "Spring" cycle.


The cantata La Primavera was completed in 1919 and was immediately followed by the symphonic poem Ballata delle Gnomidi and the fairy-tale opera La bella dormente net bosco. It was first performed in Rome on 4th March 1923 under the baton of Bernardino Molinari. Respighi was disappointed at the cool reception of the work, believing that the performers had been unable to cope with its difficulties. In a biography of her husband in 1954 Elsa Respighi complains about the lack of a proper Italian performance of La Prima vera, considering that critical opinion still lacked a basis for judgement. That it is indeed a demanding work for all participants may also have been a reason for relatively infrequent performances. In 1924 the cantata was given its first American performance at the Ann Arbor Festival under the direction of Frederick Stock and we learn from Respighi's correspondence that contacts were established in 1924 and 1925 with Wilhelm Furtwangler and Willem Mengelberg, but there is no indication that performances under these conductors ever took place. Detailed information on past performances is no longer held by the publisher of the cantata, since old files have been discarded.


In his memoir on Respighi, published in 1985, Gianandrea Gavazzeni expressed disparaging views on La Prima vera. After considering the composer's bad taste in his choice of some poets, he expresses his disappointment at the first performance of the cantata, at which, it seems, he was present, owing to the fact that it was based on what he calls a translation of a bad text by Constant Zarian, "a contemporary Greek poet". After a brief disquisition on other Greek poets, Gavazzeni criticizes Zarian, declaring that "those empty pseudo-poetical banalities have also influenced the structure and general taste of the cantata". "It is unfortunate", he continues, " that Respighi had to become infatuated with such a sequence of saccharine nonsense". Of Maestro Gavazzeni, whom the present writer deeply admires and considered destined to champion this cantata, it must be asked which among the many Italian operas based on silly libretti he has ever refused to conduct for similar reasons. In the same context it is hardly believable that inferior poetry would affect the quality of the music, if the composer is a good one.


With La Primavera Respighi's remarkable excursion into the field of the cantata finds its triumphant affirmation. Aretusa (1911), Il Tramonto (1914) and La Sensitiva (1915), all based on texts by Shelley and written for the Italian mezzo-soprano Chiarina Fino-Savio, show the composer's predilection for a vocal symphonic poem, avoiding the character of oratorio, somehow between traditional cantata and opera, which he called poema, or poem et to, lirico. Although La Primavera is based on a text of religious connotation, it is conceived in a quasi-dramatic way, since a few dramatic indications are added to the score, in order to help performers and audience to understand better its atmosphere. It is not only the inclusion of a large chorus and six soloists that makes La Primavera a large-scale work but also the fact that its poetic message has lost the sense of intimacy proper to the earlier cantatas, to become a celebration involving larger audiences. Nevertheless the title poema lirico and the musical structure of the symphonic poem are preserved. The nature-inspired choral works of Frederick Delius, Songs of Sunset, Sea Drift and The Song of the High Hills, or his Idyll for two soloists and orchestra, are, in a way, similar in their lyrical and impressionistic mood to Respighi's cantatas, and with its powerful and rapturous celebratory character La Primavera even reaches the dimensions of Delius' Mass of Life.


Scored for an orchestra including double wind instruments, with an additional third flute behind the orchestra, and E flat and bass clarinets, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones and tuba, La Primavera includes, in addition to a conventional string ensemble, timpani, two harps, celesta, piano (occasionally for four hands), organ, glockenspiel, triangle, cymbals and tam-tam.


In its dramatic structure the cantata can be divided into seven episodes. Their titles were not assigned by the composer, but have been added by the present writer for this recording:


[1] Invocation

The scene is set in the country near a dark and mysterious forest. The Praying One (Orante) calls on God and prays him to pour the mysteries of spring into everyone's soul and to give the sun its necessary warmth. Spring enters in full light and sweetness and is welcomed by everyone with childish astonishment and praise.


[2] Voices of the breezes, of water and of the flowers

Breezes come down from the star-lit skies to caress the flowers. Waters from high mountains rejoice, reflecting the skies and watering the trees: they announce themselves through singing waterfalls and invite lovers to drink. Flowers grow aware of their colours and scents. Together with all voices, the Praying One resumes his hymn and invites everyone to celebrate this feast of Spring, a passage that culminates in a passionate orchestral episode.


[3] The young man's longings

By observing nature's renewal a lonely young man realises changes within himself. Hearing the song of a bird, he remembers having once seen wandering through the countryside a beautiful girl, whose eyes he could never forget and whose path he wanted to follow. Meanwhile the voices of nature greet the sun and the young man plays his flute.


[4] The old man's memories

An old man comes by and expresses his desire to visit again the countryside where he spent his youth. He does not want to die before he has seen Spring in full beauty and fears that from the moment earth withers, his own life will wither away. He feels the pulsating earth and his heart pulsating. The young man tells him that any old man who survives Spring can live for many years.


[5] Enraptured maidens - Sirvard's reverie

It is the turn of a group of young girls, seeking to know why nature shows itself to them through all this germinating, rustling and singing. The more they enjoy these signs of Spring, the more they feel that they are about to experience something new. While they shower each other with gifts, two among them reveal sensuous feelings of love for each other. Sirvard, another girl of particular beauty, is being aroused by her companions from her strange reverie of a mysterious pathway through the forest. The orchestral meditation that follows lets us feel that Sirvard is now growing into maturity.


[6] Meeting of the young man and Sirvard

The Praying One welcomes the mystery, announced by God through magic signs in the water. The encounter of the young man with Sirvard is introduced by the orchestra describing the growth of love. The girl feels embarrassed at the admiration bestowed on her. She reveals that she is seeking her favourite tree, adorned with white blossoms like a bride, and the young man offers to accompany her. Sirvard accepts.


[7] Hymn to Spring

In a triumphant finale, introduced by the Praying One and enhanced by all the voices of nature, the celebration reaches its climax. God, "an infant with innocent looks like those of a man in love", offers Spring and its mystery of love to his creatures, who all receive it as the gift of Life.


The music of La Primavera, opening in D flat major and ending in A major, is constructed on three principal motifs, mostly connected with the sections for the chorus and for the baritone. The remaining sections for soprano, tenor and bass, are conceived in a more mezzo-carattere style, at times introduced and interrupted by short but elaborate orchestral episodes. In the orchestral introduction to the cantata (Part 1) the principal motif is stated, a jubilant 7/4 theme of dionysiac rather than religious character and in the hypo-ionian mode. The following G flat major Halleluja, heard in the orchestra after the baritone's invocation, is pentatonic. The third is an exuberantly bouncing, post-romantic theme, with florid figurations and syncopations, symbolizing passion. This forms the extended orchestral episode preceding the tenor's first arioso (Part 3) and is carried over into his duets with the bass and with the soprano. There is a more typical impressionistic variation, reduced to the solo of the flute behind the orchestra, as in Respighi's La Sensitiva, imitating bird- song. Respighi's orchestral impressionism reaches moments of tense atmosphere particularly in the second section, where the chromatic female chorus part is sustained by cascades of glissandi, tremoli, arabesques of all instruments, and in the sixth section, where a more transparent orchestral writing supports the expansive love duet between soprano and tenor. Mysterious moods occur in the fourth section, after the bass arioso, in which the old man physically experiences the pulsations of earth, and towards the end of the fifth section in which the girls, almost enviously, reproach Sirvard for her naivety before the mystery that she has been chosen to experience. The last section is conceived in the form of a sensuous waltz of scherzoso character, leading into a trio in 2/4. The latter is nothing else but an innocent homoerotic scene between the second soprano and the mezzo-soprano.


Elsa and Ottorino Respighi were married on 13th January 1919. In Respighi's correspondence shortly preceding this event La Primavera occupies a particular place and in his letters to his fiancée phrases of love are often mingled with allusions to his work on the cantata, in phrases like: "Spring is coming to me. Your entry into my life, Elsa, brings Spring into my soul", or "how could I set to music without enthusiasm verses such as: The last time I saw her -the Virgin surrounded in light -as she softly stepped over the grass and the flowers, where did she go? Her eyes were the most beautiful."


La Primavera belongs to Respighi's autobiographical or key group of works, consisting of operas, cantatas and songs that give some insight into a complex personality, torn between ascetic ideals, often reaching the domain of pantheistic mysticism, and the sensual realities of the world. Music certainly helped him to find his mental and physical equilibrium. Very little is known, however, about the composer's apparently complex inner world, which was often a mystery even to his wife, his ex-pupil Elsa, fifteen years his junior. The poetry he chose to set to music suggests a confrontation with ideologies of life ranging from a desire of integration with nature (Shelley) to an enraptured and mystical search for the Creator (Zarian). A fatalistic refusal of social integration and a desire to escape into a cosmic world (La campana sommersa, adapted from the play by Gerhard Hauptmann) leads finally to a submission to the daemonic forces of the supernatural (La fiamma, adapted from the play The Witch by G. Wiers Jenssen), or to those of brutal human violence (Lucrezia, after Titus Livius and Shakespeare). Respighi died three years before the outbreak of World War II. After the extremes of La fiamma and Lucrezia one might have expected an interesting and even more troubling development of aesthetics and style. There are critics, however, who still consider Respighi a superficial tone-poet, or, as we are told, for example, in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, a man of "a very simple, even childish" personality, incapable of deeper emotions.


Quattro liriche su poesie popolari armene

The song-cycle Quattro liriche su poesie popolari armene was composed in 1921 and dedicated to Elsa Respighi, who gave the first performance in Prague on 18th April of the same year, accompanied by her husband. This was during the Respighis' first concert tour as chamber musicians. After performing in towns in Italy, they gave concerts in Bratislava, Brno, Bohemia and Vienna. Other works included in the programme were violin sonatas by Respighi and Tartini (the latter in Respighi's transcription and both played by Mario Corti) and cantatas by composers of the seventeenth century or Italian folk-songs, also adapted by Respighi. There were also concerts with orchestra. In Prague on 19th April Elsa gave the first performance of the string orchestra version of II Tramonto, with her husband conducting and on 29th April that of La Sensitiva, under the baton of Vaclav Talich.


It is important to know that the second and third of these songs were recorded, with seven from other groups, by Elsa and Ottorino Respighi in 1927 on Brazilian shellac. They remain unique sound documents of unforgettable artistic and historical value. Needless to say, in transcribing the original piano accompaniment for an Armenian-like deste ensemble of flute, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, trombone and harp, the author was inspired by the moving interpretation of the Respighis. Elsa Respighi, who some nine years ago saw and authorised the present instrumental adaptation, found that it "instinctively emphasized the cycle's religious and popular atmosphere".


The first song, Respighi's own Kindertotenlied, almost strictly set in C sharp minor, has its melody in the Phrygian mode, based on a G sharp bourdon. Its plaintive and moto perpetuo character transports the listener into a delicate pastoral mood after the voice's silence.


A joyful song in F major follows of a more definite pastoral character. The vocal line is set over an undulating melody suggesting a shawm (the Armenian surna), the character of which it is easier to suggest through a wind instrument than by means of the keyboard.


The third song is an extended dirge (here transcribed to suggest a clarinet- like duduk atmosphere), in which we learn that this time the lamenting mother is the Blessed Virgin. Its F sharp minor vocal line rises in a crescendo from resignation to desperation, underlined by an increased thickening of the accompaniment, emphasized by a syncopated ostinato figuration from the oboe, later doubled by the bassoon, starting at the change into a seven-bar B major episode in the hypo-ionian mode.


The last song, in B flat minor with a central episode in F major, is built up into a three-part prayer of changing moods, from the initially solemn into the more intimate, transfigured before the climax of a fervent hymn. The harp should suggest here plucked instruments such as the Armenian tar and saz.


All four songs in this cycle end with short instrumental postludes echoing the predominantly melismatic vocal lines. As in La Primavera, the composer apparently did not feel the need to use typical mugamat (Armenian folk-scales) and restricted himself to archaic church modes to provide the exotic-religious atmosphere of its texts.


With Tre preludi sopra melodie gregoriane for piano (1921), the four Armenian songs are the first works of Respighi inspired by church modes, to which he had been introduced by Elsa, considering them her bridal gift. Having taken a degree in Gregorian chant, she thus became responsible for an important turning-point in her husband's career as a composer. Other works of Armenian inspiration by Respighi include the lovely Canzone armena from his Sei pezzi of 1926 for piano duet (also available in an orchestral version by the author) and a vocalise on an Armenian theme in his Russian-inspired ballet of 1920 La pentola magica.


Issued in the year of her 100th birthday, this recording is not only an act of homage to Elsa Respighi's incredible personality but also a personal gift from the author in highest gratitude for her long and unforgettable friendship.


Adriano (edited by Keith Anderson)

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