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8.573129 - RESPIGHI, O.: Violin and Piano Works (Complete), Vol. 1 (Bernecoli, Bianchi)
English  Italian 

Ottorino Respighi (1879–1936)
Complete Works for Violin and Piano • 1


Ottorino Respighi’s most famous works, his “Roman trilogy” of symphonic poems, Le fontane di Roma, I pini di Roma and Feste romane, have been part of the international orchestral repertoire ever since Toscanini first brought them to audiences’ notice. Less well-known, but equally deserving of attention, are some of his other orchestral works and, above all, his operas, from Belfagor to Maria Egiziaca and Lucrezia. As is true of all artistic endeavour, these masterpieces did not spring from the void, like flowers blooming in the wilderness, but were the result of long years of apprenticeship, study, and step-by-step learning. Looking back, therefore, at Respighi’s juvenile works, those first attempts at his art, will bring into sharper focus the music that forms the cornerstones of his production, providing a fascinating glimpse of the achievements to come, above and beyond their own intrinsic value.

Given his family background and musical education, it was entirely natural that Respighi’s first works, in addition to a few symphonic sketches and pieces for quartet and quintet, should be for violin and piano. He was born in Bologna in 1879 into a family of musicians (his grandfather was a violinist and organist, while his father Giuseppe, was a pianist and his first teacher) and as a boy studied violin with Federico Sarti at the Liceo musicale in Bologna, a “Wagnerian” city, in which musical debate raged and there was a high level of awareness of developments north of the Alps. He graduated in 1899 with a performance of Paganini’s Le streghe, among other works. He also studied composition at the Liceo, with Luigi Torchi and Giuseppe Martucci, both of whom were to exert a lasting influence on him. In 1901 and 1902 Respighi spent time in St Petersburg and Moscow respectively as principal viola in the orchestra of the Imperial Theatre, and from 1906 was the viola player in Bologna’s Mugellini Quintet. During his time in Russia, he had the opportunity of meeting and studying with no less a figure than Rimsky-Korsakov who, along with Torchi and Martucci, would have the greatest impact on his writing, helping him to become an undisputed master of orchestration, with a sophisticated gift for instrumentation that enabled him to make the most of his colouristic sensibilities. Indeed between his two stays in Russia, he also graduated from the Bologna Liceo in composition, with an orchestral Prelude, Chorale and Fugue written in St Petersburg under Rimsky-Korsakov’s guidance.

The violin and piano works on this album were composed between 1897 and 1905. Some are unpublished pieces from his student days whose manuscripts are held by Bologna’s Civico Museo Bibliografico, others were written for public performance and published at the time. None of these can compete of course with the B minor Sonata of 1916 (which will appear on a second Respighi album to be issued by Naxos [8.573130]) or the Concerto gregoriano of 1921, and yet they shed some interesting light on Respighi’s “starting points”, on the various influences he had absorbed thus far, and on the central facets of his musical vision.

So, for example, even such early works demonstrate a clear rigour in terms of phraseology and structure—they display a strong sense of form, based on a Classical approach to musical discourse. This may involve the use of sonata form or, as is often the case, two alternating ideas, frequently different in mode and tempo, like contrasting states of mind, one minute calm, the next agitated, which are repeated and varied in the manner of a two-theme rondo (ABA’B’A), or with a concluding B’ section functioning more or less as a coda to the three-part form that precedes it (see, for example, the Romanza that opens the Cinque Pezzi). Equally evident from these pieces is his technical mastery of instrumentation, whether he is writing for the violin or the piano: the result, again, of his years of study. In general, the violin lines are sweeping and vocally inflected, accentuated by the priority Respighi always gives to the melodic, thematic element, with no particular concessions to virtuosity. The piano, meanwhile, frequently takes over the leading rôle from the violin; its figurations are never forced and its writing is not overly contrapuntal, seeking instead to provide harmonic support and create unexpected chordal “colours” (deceptive and avoided cadences, direct transitions and so on).

What is particularly notable in these juvenilia is their openness to hints and echoes from a variety of sources, as if Respighi were trying out different idioms as he looked for his own path to follow. This may explain the eclecticism discernible in his production from this period onwards. Hence we find ideas attributable to the “novelty” of German Post-Romanticism (ideas learned from Torchi and Martucci, and from Bruch, with whom Respighi studied while in Berlin in 1902); hints of the eastern breezes whose air he had breathed during his years in Russia; and, above all, figures and forms of expression borrowed from the French school, from Franck to Fauré, and on again to Debussy.

Of course these are all just reference points, evidence of Respighi’s intellectual curiosity and experimentation, but they played a part in making him (along with others in the so-called “generation of the 80s”, such as Casella, Malipiero and Pizzetti, a notably disparate group of composers) a key figure in the rebirth of Italian instrumental music that harked back to the splendours of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Though open to influences from the rest of Europe, Respighi was fascinated by his country’s musical past, and created transcriptions and realisations of works by a number of earlier composers, from Monteverdi to Tartini, from which he developed aspects of his own style, following his natural instinct more than any particular ideology. Such projects also inspired some of his major “original” works, such as the Concerto gregoriano for violin and the orchestral Antiche arie e danze per liuto.

Turning now to the specific works appearing on this album, of the unpublished pieces from his student years, the C major Allegretto vivace is of more interest than the Giga in B minor, in the way it contrasts binary rhythmic cells and a ternary beat. The most remarkable, though, in terms of both scale and promise, is the three-movement Sonata in D minor of 1897, which has unmistakable echoes of Schumann’s Sonata, Op 121, in the same key, and is written in a clearly tonal idiom, with a few limited “chromatic” concessions to the Neapolitan second and augmented sixths. The first movement, an Allegro with a Lento introduction characterised by French-style double-dotted notes, is in strict sonata form. The central Adagio and final Scherzo, a dance-like Allegretto, meanwhile, play on the variation of two alternating sections (recalling eighteenth-century rondo form, as mentioned above). This sonata remained in manuscript form only for years, until the publication in the early 1990s of an edition prepared by the Swiss musician Adriano, who revised and indeed completed the violin part, of which one page had been lost, from bar 58 of the third movement onwards, on the basis of the (not always entirely legible) violin-piano score.

The Sei Pezzi (Six Pieces: Berceuse in D minor, Melodia in E, Leggenda in G minor, Valse caressante in D, Serenata in E and Aria in G minor), unlike Respighi’s student works, were published soon after composition by Bongiovanni in Bologna in 1905, a mark of the renown that the composer had garnered for himself by this point. Some of the six date from earlier years: Aria from 1901, Melodia and Leggenda from 1902. Generally speaking they again reveal the composer’s desire to test out different expressive idioms, but retain that rigour of form and phraseology, with frequent touches of salon music betraying his natural eagerness to express himself—the sheer pleasure he took in making music. And again there are recognisably Respighian traits in each piece, from the naturally pianistic figurations of the Berceuse to the harmonic-chromatic play at the heart of Melodia; from the virtuosic demands on the violin, such as those we hear in Melodia and Leggenda (where eighth position is required, as it is in Humoresque in the Cinque Pezzi), to the French-influenced modal inflections at the start of Leggenda, reminiscent of the near-contemporary Clair de lune from Debussy’s Suite bergamasque. Also “French” in its decadent spirit is the rondo of the Valse caressante, and a Parisian air seems to envelop the extended harmonies of the Serenata (in which the violin is played with the mute, as it is in the Berceuse of the Cinque Pezzi). By contrast, there are echoes of the Italian Baroque in the final Aria, with its subtle contrapuntal writing (Respighi reused this piece in his Suite for organ and strings of 1905).

The Sei Pezzi were immediately followed by the Cinque Pezzi (Five pieces: Romanza in A, Aubade in D, Madrigale in G, Berceuse in F and Humoresque in G) which were published by Hofmeister in Leipzig in 1906 (Respighi may have made this professional contact while in Berlin four years earlier). They show his continuing search for his own individual path, with the same eclectic mix of styles, again based on a well-established formal structure (three-part, variously articulated in the different pieces, with coda, or two alternating ideas) and that talent for idiomatic instrumental writing, whether for the violin, the piano, or the pairing of the two. So, while the Romanza features Wagnerian chromaticisms that recall the last of the Wesendonck-Lieder, those of the luminous Aubade which follows are purely colouristic; neo-modal echoes can be heard in the Madrigale, while Slavic flourishes reminiscent of Dvořák and Mussorgsky appear in the dazzling Humoresque finale, dedicated (as is the Berceuse) to Mario Corti, Respighi’s first-violin colleague in the Mugellini Quintet. All in all, a kaleidoscopic collection exhibiting all the knowledge and experience that would soon inspire the composer’s greatest works.

Bruno Zanolini
English version by Susannah Howe

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