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Jerry Dubins
Fanfare, March 2011

In reviewing a number of previous entries by composers of Italy’s so-called “generation of the 1880s”—Alfano, Malipiero, Montemezzi, and Zandonai, to name four—I maintained that Ottorino Respighi (1879–1936) was probably the best of the lot and assuredly the most enduringly popular. Several of his orchestral works, and not just the Fountains of Rome, the Pines of Rome, and Feste Romane, have held their place in the mainstream repertoire and retained favor among audiences and record companies. Gli uccelli (The Birds), La Boutique fantasque, Ancient Airs and Dances, Church Windows, and Rossiniana are but five other Respighi works that have demonstrated their staying power.

The Concerto in modo misolidio (Concerto in Mixolydian mode) is more or less a conventional three-movement piano concerto written in 1925. For the curious, Mixolydian was the seventh of eight ecclesiastical modes authorized by the Church for musical settings of liturgical texts. It follows the same pattern as our modern major scale up to the seventh degree, which is a half-step lower than the raised leading-tone to which we’re accustomed. If you play from G to G¹ on a piano keyboard using only the white keys, you will reproduce a Mixolydian scale, which differs from a G-Major scale only in having an F natural instead of an F♯. This is what lends Respighi’s concerto its modal feeling, especially at cadence points that sound unusual to our ears due to the absent leading-tone on the seventh degree. The composer’s reliance on ancient modes is not unique to this work; his mixing of a late-Romantic style of expression with Gregorian modal elements is characteristic of his writing, and it’s one of the devices, along with his Technicolor orchestration, that makes Respighi’s music so distinctive. In the concerto, he quotes the Mixolydian plainchant Viri Galilaei from the Introit to the Mass of Ascension Day.

The Concerto in modo misoldio has not had the advocacy on disc that other of Respighi’s more popular works have, but among the handful of recordings it has enjoyed, one in particular stands out; that with pianist Geoffrey Tozer and Edward Downes conducting the BBC Philharmonic on Chandos has pretty much dominated the scene since it was released in 1994. Tozer’s playing exhibits a good deal of finesse, the Chandos sound is impressive, and the coupling, Respighi’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, makes a bit more sense to me than this Ondine pairing with yet another version of the Fountains of Rome, which I suspect most readers will already have on other recordings.

Still, Olli Mustonen is a significant presence on today’s international concert circuit, both as pianist and conductor, and though he is no longer young—he was born in 1967—his discography, mostly of relatively recent vintage, is growing. This latest release joins a number of others that have been reviewed in these pages, none, I regret to say, drawing favorable comments. Depending on whom you read—Susan Kagan, Peter J. Rabinowitz, or Richard A. Kaplan—Mustonen indulges in “willful exhibitionism,” and “his playing is awful in a way that’s hard to describe without making it sound perversely interesting.”

While I haven’t heard the CDs that inspired these observations, I note that they apply mainly to performances of Beethoven and other mainstream repertoire. Perhaps a little exhibitionism, whether willful or otherwise, is not an altogether bad thing in Respighi’s concerto, a work that filters the charged late Romanticism of Wagner, Strauss, and Rachmaninoff not through the lens of the first quarter of the 20th century as one might expect, but rather through a mirror looking backward to the medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque eras.

Mustonen adopts quicker tempos throughout than does Tozer, the overall difference being about four minutes. But more than two of those minutes are accounted for in Mustonen’s much accelerated Lento—8:03 compared to Tozer’s 10:17. Where Tozer dwells on the lyrical surface beauty of the movement, Mustonen exposes the mysterious disquiet that lies at its underbelly. Each is highly effective in his own way, and I’d be hard-pressed to choose one over the other based solely on Mustonen’s more restless account vs. Tozer’s more relaxed and spacious reading. The two orchestras—the Finnish Radio Symphony and the BBC Philharmonic—are an equal match. So, choice probably comes down to the coupling.

As mentioned earlier, the Chandos pairing strikes me as the more logical of the two. Both works are piano concertos, and neither has received much exposure on disc. The Fountains of Rome, however, if anything, has enjoyed exposure beyond its merit and, in any case, is more often and appropriately coupled with the Pines of Rome. It has many noteworthy recordings, from the 1951 Toscanini—he was the first to champion Respighi’s music outside of Italy—to Ormandy, Reiner, Doráti, and Muti. Ondine’s new recording is wonderfully atmospheric and transparent, though I have to admit I was a little surprised that the label, which has produced so many stunning SACDs, chose not to release an SACD version of this disc. The Fountains of Rome is one of those audiophile sonic spectaculars for which the medium is especially well suited. The performance is excellent, but Oramo’s Finnish Radio ensemble is not the Philadelphia Orchestra under Ormandy or Muti or the Chicago Symphony under Reiner.

I would recommend this new release as an adjunct to other recordings of these works you may already have. In the concerto, Mustonen and Tozer in their different ways are both equally satisfying…

Phillip Scott
Fanfare, March 2011

Sakari Oramo and his Finnish forces give us a sensitive if not outstandingly atmospheric performance of the earliest of Respighi’s Roman trilogy, the Fountains of Rome of 1916. The big moments are somewhat hampered by a lack of string power. The violins do not contribute as much as they should to the climax of the third movement (“Fontana di Trevi al meriggio”) and, unfortunately, the success of these Roman tone poems lies in balancing the weight of the fortissimos against the quiet passages of impressionistic introspection. The latter are meltingly played, with details like the distant church bells in the “Fontana di Villa Medici” perfectly balanced.

The main work on this disc is a rarity. Completed in 1925 and premiered in New York under Mengelberg, the Concerto in Mixolydian Mode is a large-scale Romantic piano concerto imbued with medieval church harmonies. Much of the first movement sounds like an extended fantasia on Debussy’s Engulfed Cathedral, beginning as it does with a chorale in full chords stated by the soloist. (The theme is based on the traditional introit for the Mass of Ascension Day.) The mixolydian mode is close to the major scale—only a flattened seventh differentiates them—and the piano’s first entry avoids that note, sounding for all intents and purposes to be in a major key. Gradually, modal harmony creeps in as the composer’s evocation of an earlier era is established.

Respighi’s concept of medieval times was, let us say, the polar opposite of Pasolini’s bawdy, earthbound vision; the composer envisaged the period as one of grandeur and ecclesiastical solemnity. These are the overriding characteristics of the lengthy first and second movements, which work their way through a number of musical episodes at an unhurried pace. In the second movement, the piano part becomes increasingly decorative, adding a glittering veneer to the basically sedate proceedings. Momentum is finally achieved in the passacaglia finale, but for all their lushness and lyricism it is probably the lack of impetus in the first two movements (totaling 27 minutes) that keeps Respighi’s concerto out of the repertoire. His Concerto Gregoriano for violin and orchestra of 1922, similarly based on ancient church modes, is more successful, though it too has its longeurs, while his 25-minute Toccata for piano and orchestra (1928)—another piano concerto in all but name—is saved by its spectacular final movement.

I have no wish to write this work off, however. There is a case to be made for it, and these musicians make that case convincingly. Olli Mustonen plays with uncharacteristic legato. Listen to his limpid interpretation of the first movement’s closing solo (around 15:30); this is certainly not the pianist who pecks his way through Beethoven. His lightness of touch in the passagework of the finale is a delight. This is very much a concerto where soloist and orchestra work as a partnership, and under Oramo the Finnish RSO contributes strong and often subtle support. The sound is clear and vivid. Previous recordings by Tozer and Scherbakov have been praised, but I cannot imagine them being superior in any way to this one. Recommended as a disc that could easily grow on you.

Kara Dahl Russell
The WSCL Blog, February 2011

The popular and beautiful “Fountains of Rome” is one of the works for which Resphighi is known. It is paired on this CD with a much less known, and rarely recorded piano concerto, “Concerto in Mixolydian Mode” which is a tour de force for the pianist, Olli Mustonen. Gregorian and Medieval music used “church modes” in much the same way that instruments of the time would be tuned differently for different works. (Similarly today, to play Middle Eastern, Japanese, or Chinese instruments, you would often be using a different musical scale.) To be specific, “the Mixolydian scale is G major with the F sharp of it’s seventh note replaced by F natural.” (Liner notes in CDs are a marvelous thing and educational in themselves.) This extended piano work (almost 40 minutes) represents the intellectual & academic yearnings of Respighi. I kept thinking of the ocean as I listened to this work—it has a large, ancient, heroic feel to it, although it also reminded me of Rachmaninov’s Variations on a Theme of Paganini. It is a nice contrast on this CD, of this lesser known large work, followed by the very accessible “Fountains.”

Jeremy Nicholas
Gramophone, December 2010

Finnish players favour clarity over warmth in Respighi’s sun-kissed Roman pictures

There are only two other versions of the Concerto currently available, by Geoffrey Tozer and Konstantin Scherbakov on Chandos and Naxos (8.553366) respectively, neither of which I have heard. It is based on a medieval plainchant “Viri Galilaei” (the Introit for the Mass of Ascension Day) written in one of the ancient church modes, number seven, the Mixolydian, which, I am sure you don’t need reminding, is the scale of G major with its seventh (F sharp) replaced by an F natural. This underpins the entire work, completed in 1925 and premiered by the New York Philharmonic under William Mengelberg in the same year.

Personally, I found it hard to get a handle on even after three hearings. Its amorphous form, constant internal shifts of rhythm and focus, and episodic nature managed to keep me at arm’s length, admiring Respighi’s craftsmanship but not, in terms of a satisfying concert experience, the work, described by one writer as “stylised neo-archaic”. The slow movement is, perhaps, the most rewarding with its elegiac opening theme on the lower strings. Mustonen, with that chilly piano tone he prefers, is a fluent a committed soloist.

The Fountains of Rome brings us to more familiar (and competitive) territory. Helsinki’s House of Culture has a dry acoustic allowing Oramo and his Finnish players to give us a highly atmospheric reading of exemplary clarity and, in the “Trevi Fountain”, powerful dramatic effect. But the warmer bloom of Rome’s Sala Santa Cecilia with Antonio Pappano conducting the complete Roman triptych makes his EMI version preferable.

Mike D. Brownell, November 2010

Of Ottorino Respighi’s vast output, only a handful are commonly played today. The so-called “Roman Trilogy” certainly tops the list of his most familiar, popular works. On the other end of the continuum is the Concerto in modo misolidio, a piano concerto in the mixolydian mode. Why this riveting work is not played more often is anyone’s guess. It incorporates Respighi’s innate talents as a master orchestrator, his deference to classical forms (in this case, the three-movement concerto format), and his love of ancient music and modes. The basis for the concerto is an excerpt from a plainchant mass, which is included in this album’s informative liner notes. The solo piano part is at times muscular, tender, independent, and delicately intertwined with the lush orchestral part. Pianist Olli Mustonen joins the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Sakari Oramo for this commanding, convincing performance of this woefully neglected work. Mustonen and Oramo bring the score to life, highlighting Respighi’s careful interplay between piano and orchestra with well-planned balance and seamless dialogue. The album continues with an equally polished performance of Fontane di Roma—part of the Roman Trilogy—making this album suitable for those already familiar with Respighi’s works and newcomers as well. Ondine’s sound is clear and vibrant, placing listeners in the center of Respighi’s lavish soundscape.

Phil Muse
Audio Video Club of Atlanta, November 2010

The title of Ottorino Respighi’s Piano Concerto invites the question: just what is the Mixolydian Mode (Modo Misolidio)? Fair enough. It’s one of the liturgical modes that dominated western music before the advent of the modern system of scales, sometime after 1600. It corresponds to the scale of G Major, with the F# replaced by F natural. That may seem like a small thing, but it’s enough to give the modern listener the impression of “wrong notes,” right from the outset of the opening movement, with its stirring outburst from the orchestra. The two themes in this movement pay homage to the two dominant traditions of Medieval music, Gregorian chant and Conductus, the latter evident in its rugged stepwise progression. Forceful climaxes alternating with more reflective material give way to an altogether brilliant and technically demanding cadenza from the soloist before the movement ends with lower winds and strings providing a backdrop for limpid chords from the piano.

That 18-minute opening movement, running half the playing time of the whole work, probably has as much as anything to do with the fact that this inherently exciting and richly laden concerto is so seldom performed. A glance at the “Muze” (a.k.a. revealed only three other recordings beside Olli Mustonen’s, none of whom by artists you would be likely to recognize. My guess is that other pianists shy away from it as a career-breaker. Which is another way of saying that few possess Mustonen’s flair, his feeling for the specific gravity and amount of feeling to invest in every phrase, and his expressive luminosity, which does not diminish in the least in the quieter moments.

The second movement alternates a soulful theme with livelier asides from piano and winds, a solemn brass chorale, a highly expressive variant of the work’s initial theme, and then passages of rising excitement from the soloist that lead directly into the explosive finale. In its form, the movement is a Passacaglia, a set of variations based on the notes of the bass line, in which the piano engages in combinations with various instruments and families of the orchestra without losing any of the movement’s relentless momentum. The mood then becomes increasingly excited, with lively exchanges between piano and orchestra all the way to the very end.

The more familiar tone poem Fountains of Rome provides a very satisfying conclusion to the program, as well as an opportunity for maestro Sakari Oramo and the Finnish RSO to show off the versatility and virtuosity of every section of the orchestra. “The Fountain of Valle Giulia at Daybreak” is hazily evocative of that moment of the day, with softly expressive writing for oboe and cello. “The Triton Fountain at Morning” bustles with activity, right from the sensational opening horn fanfares sounding with shrill upper woodwinds. “The Trevi Fountain at Noon,” with its expanding sonic waves, leading to a splendid climax involving organ and tuned percussion, sounds incredibly stunning in this performance. Recalling that the Trevi is the fountain in which visitors to Rome are traditionally supposed to toss a coin and make a wish to return to the Eternal City, I wondered how many would have the temerity to approach the fountain if it always seethed as it does in this musical portrayal! “The Villa Medici Fountain at Sunset” ends the work nostalgically with an interlude for harp, celesta, piccolo and strings. Gradually thinning textures finally allow us to hear the softly dissonant sound of distant bells.

A word in passing for the sound engineering. Without being a multichannel SACD or possessing any of the customary claims to supersonic engineering, this is truly an audiophile recording in every sense of the word. It deserves industry recognition when the next round of awards is handed out.

David Hurwitz, October 2010

Respighi was proud of his Concerto in modo misolidio, and rightly so. It’s a beautiful work, full of attractive melodies and effective writing for the soloist, and it deserves more exposure on the concert stage than it gets. This is hands down the best performance it has received thus far on disc. It’s so typical that Mustonen...offers such a faithful rendering of the piano part when confronted with a novelty item. This isn’t to suggest that his performance lacks imagination or spirit: just the opposite. However, Respighi gives the soloist so much to do (much of the part is written on three staves) that there’s certainly less room to fool around gratuitously, and so Mustonen doesn’t.

The main competition in this work comes from Tozer/Downes on Chandos, a good performance that nonetheless sounds more than a touch stodgy next to this one. It takes some five minutes longer, almost all of it the central slow movement and concluding passacaglia. Mustonen and Sakari Oramo’s extra energy in these movements pays huge dividends, effectively belying any view of the work as pretty but formally ungainly and lacking excitement. This is certainly the version to choose to get to know the concerto, particularly if you’re coming to it for the very first time.

Only the coupling prevents this disc from getting the very highest rating. Actually, this is an excellent performance of Fountains of Rome, very well played, and glitteringly captured by the engineers. But there are many such...Still, as the finest version available of the main item, this disc will be self-recommending to Respighi fans (and piano buffs too).

Rob Barnett
MusicWeb International, October 2010

Respighi’s fame now rests on his three Roman poems and the Rossini based suites. He in fact wrote concertos as well as a whole sequence of operas seemingly in aspiring competition with Puccini. The Concerto Gregoriano is his violin concerto. In it the soloist rather than being protagonist serves as hortator and cantor. It is a most lovely work whose melodies follow the undulating contours of Gregorian plainchant. Adversarial or dramatic it is not. For this aspect we need to look at the contrasting delights of the Concerto in modo misolidio (Concerto in the Mixolydian mode) which is on a grand scale as to its duration and its content. Tozer’s Chandos recording runs to almost 41 minutes while Mustonen takes 36 or so. Even so that disc and its companions in the Edward Downes cycle must not be forgotten—they include the Sinfonia drammatica (CHAN 9213) and the Poema autunnale, Concerto gregoriano (Lydia Mordkovitch) and Ballata delle Gnomidi (CHAN 9232).

There is also a Piano Concerto in A minor (1902) from his Russian years—you can hear it on Chandos CHAN9285 (with the Misolidio) with Geoffrey Tozer and on Naxos 8.553207 from Konstantin Scherbakov (with two other works for piano and orchestra: the Toccata and Fantasia Slava). As for the Misolidio itself there are other recordings: Tozer on Chandos CHAN9285 (with the A minor), Scherbakov on Naxos 8.553366 (with Concerto a cinque) and Sonya Hanke and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra conducted by Myer Fredman on Marco Polo 8.220176 (with Three Preludes on Gregorian Themes). I have not heard these other discs.

The two concertos suffered through not attracting eminent enough soloists on the world stage. The Misolidio was premiered in New York on the last day of 1925 with Respighi as pianist and the NYPSO conducted by Mengelberg. The Misolidio has more drama in its DNA but it too feels the centrifugal pull of plainchant that carries all before it in Gregoriano. That medieval chant element is most strongly in evidence in the central movement. The concerto echoes Grieg at times, exults in language familiar from the Roman poems and in the exciting finale there are strands from Gershwin and Rachmaninov. There are even indications that Respighi had been impressed by De Falla’s Noches. The romping brass are a complete joy in that finale—sample the first couple of minutes and the hoarse stomping triumph at 2:32. The Fountains are well enough known. Suffice to say that Oramo gives the work its head in opulence and glowing Rosenkavalier delicacy.

The Ondine is at full price and the recording is superb whether roaring in manifold Straussian excess in the Fountains or in marginally more restrained drama in the first movement of the Concerto. The sound image is on a wide-stage but not so much as to be diffuse or lose coherence. The liner-note is by Richard Whitehouse.

I wonder if this entry heralds a second disc in 2011 with the other two poems and the Gregoriano. Who knows? The playing time is on the short side. One wonders whether anyone thought about the attractions of a coupling of the Misolidio and the Gregoriano. However in its own right this is a tasty high romantic work: a discovery—especially if your predilections run to Marx and Rachmaninov.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group