Atmospheric Respighi but this Pines of Rome is a real letdown

I have new speaker cables. Going through the long break-in time with new cables can be painful and frustrating. And these huge Crescendos are particularly agonizing. But after 2 weeks, we’re getting there! The sound is opening up, clearing up, and the soundstage is expanding into a wondrous thing of marvel and awe.

And what better recording to fully reveal their glories than a new Respighi CD! This one from Linn has many impressive moments of sonic splendor, but also some serious inadequacies, exposed all too clearly by my new cables. These top-of-line Straight Wire speaker cables are known for their complete absence of grain and glare, which is stunningly evident on this CD. (As a matter of fact, one would never know this isn’t an SACD.) They are also known for their realistic portrayal of the enormity of a soundstage. And on the more atmospheric sections of this CD, these characteristics are fully revealed. 

I began my listening with Brazilian Impressions, because – well, why would you put the Pines of Rome, with its thrilling, triumphant ending, first on any program? Expecting anything to follow it in a concert is unthinkable. So I dutifully programmed the player to play it last. Easy enough I guess.

I haven’t heard the LPO (on record) in a long time; I can’t remember the last recording from them I’ve acquired. But rarely have I heard them sounding so refined and colorfully gorgeous as in this marvelous reading of Brazilian ImpressionsIn particular, I have never heard this orchestra’s strings sound so luscious – silky smooth and airy. I have to attribute this to the marvelous conducting of Italian newcomer, Alessandro Crudele, and to the accomplishments of the Linn recording engineers.

Crudele goes for atmosphere at all times, which works particularly well here and the first half of the Belkis suite which follows. He has a natural feel for this music, with elastic ebb and flow of rubato and dynamics, in an almost operatic way. 

Even more notable, the hall sounds enormous – but not cavernous – and the orchestra is perfectly focused within it. I was struck by the layers and layers of rows of players within the hall – not only front-to-back, but side-to-side. Their presence fills the space, wall-to-wall, with spectacular definition. And the sense of space is uncanny – airy and spacious. Maybe it’s the speaker cables working their magic, but they can’t recreate something that isn’t there to begin with. So I credit the recording engineers for this miraculous, realistic portrayal of a real symphony orchestra in a real hall. 

This piece shows conductor and orchestra at their finest. Characterization of mood, vivid orchestral colors and steamy atmospheres perfume every measure. The playing is exquisite, with delicate textures and rich orchestral colors, full of life with fascinating inner details.

The opening sections of Belkis Queen of Sheba display more of these same extraordinary qualities and Crudele continues to impress with singing musical phrasing and ravishing textures. When at last the program turns up the heat and this orchestra gets a chance to flex its muscles in the War and Orgiastic Dances, we find Crudele holding them back with a strong hand (especially the brass), keeping them firmly in control, minimizing bombast, and allowing the strings to carry the day. I found it worked well enough within the context of the earlier passages, although I did miss the raw energy, unbridled power and sheer excitement found in other readings. (Geoffrey Simon on Chandos and Sascha Goetzel on Onyx come immediately to mind. There’s also a good one on a Genuin Classics collection, Oriental Tales.) I wish Crudele had delivered more savagery in the War Dance and ecstatic abandon in the Orgiastic, allowing the percussion and brass to bring it.

Finally, going back to the beginning for the Pines of Rome (which will likely be the star attraction for many), it would be unfortunate indeed if one were to play it first, as presented on this CD. Because the ending here is a pretty big disappointment. After the subdued Dances in Belkis, I was afraid Pines would be similarly restrained. (And I wasn’t wrong.) But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The opening Villa Borghese starts us off with all the sparkle, glitter and sheer energy that John Wilson’s recent Chandos reading lacks. With Crudele, it is positively effervescent, dazzling with inner details. And he builds the entire section with a cumulative tension which is very exciting indeed.

The central movements return us to the rich colors heard in the companion works, and there is some expressive solo playing. However, here is where problems begin to appear.

The climatic section of Catacomb is heavy-laden, ponderous and plodding, and organ pedals are practically non-existent, denying us that massive, subterranean sumptuousness. And later, shockingly, the nightingale’s song at the end of Janiculum is all but inaudible. The clarinet solo is much too loud for one thing (it is marked ppp by the end of the solo, but is played a solid mp). And the playback speakers of the recorded birdsong are so far away from any microphone that it is simply impossible to register. Listening very carefully with a boost of my volume setting, I could just hear maybe 2 or 3 very faint chirps – but no more. (Trying it on headphones was no better.) On the plus side, the string trills, which themselves are usually difficult to hear under the bird calls, are marvelously enchanting here with nothing to distract us from them.  

Finally, the Appian Way begins superbly misterioso, at a steady tempo (not too fast), just as it should. And there is a splendid English Horn solo along the way, and a rich, reedy bass clarinet. But just as the volume begins to build in anticipation of a tremendously dramatic experience, we hear evidence that Crudele is in big trouble with this badly miscalculated crescendo. The brass, which Crudele held in check in Belkis, are inexplicably constrained too far here, sounding weak and lacking impact as we wait for any indication that a fortissimo is anywhere near.

When the first trombone fanfare appears just before Figure 21, it is marked f but is played a polite mp. And a few bars later, at Figure 21, all the brass are marked ff, but the trumpets obstinately remain mf. Making matters worse, the offstage brass, just like the organ and the little birdie, are miles away from any microphone and are extremely faint and muffled. Finally at Figure 22, marked fff, the orchestral brass sound tired and out of steam, with no help whatsoever from the anemic extra brass.

While it’s nice to hear the strings more clearly than usual throughout this entire climactic section (and the percussion bang away with some heft), I sorely missed the power and majesty of a mighty brass section at full cry. And, again, an inaudible organ is no help. This is in no way a satisfactory ending and far from thrilling. Moreover, I was dismayed to hear the LPO brass struggling to rise to the occasion.

It is rare to find a recording of this piece which can match the overwhelming drama, majesty, extrovert exuberance and sheer power of Muti’s Philadelphia Orchestra in their recording for EMI, or Dutoit’s very exciting Montreal recording for Decca, with its awesome organ contribution. Surprisingly, those are nearly 40 years old now! While the EMI suffers from early digititis (glarey and brash), the Decca still sounds pretty impressive even today. And the performances absolutely can’t be beat. 

It is a great pity that Pines of Rome was included at all on this otherwise splendid Respighi disc from Linn. A more interesting piece (such as Three Botticelli Pictures) would have been infinitely more rewarding instead. But I understand from a record producer’s logic Pines of Rome sells CDs and Brazilian Impressions does not. Fortunately, there are many better recordings of the Pines one can turn to. But new recordings of the other two works are not nearly as commonplace and they are enthusiastically welcomed here. Crudele is as good as anyone in them and Linn’s recording is positively stunning in realistically capturing the atmosphere of mood and natural hall acoustics. Which leaves one to wonder what went so terribly wrong in Pines




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