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Pining for Rome? Let this new recording transport you

Simon Heffer delights in a brand new recording of Respighi’s Roman Trilogy

No place like Rome: The Colosseum and Alban Mount (1843) by Samuel Palmer
No place like Rome: The Colosseum and Alban Mount (1843) by Samuel Palmer Credit: Getty

I wrote here a few years ago about Ottorino Respighi’s Pini di Roma – Pines of Rome – his 1924 tone poem depicting different settings for pine trees in the Italian capital. Many readers shared my enthusiasm for this radiant, spectacular work. Predictably, some did not, but what did surprise me was that several had taken a violent dislike to it, dismissing it as second-rate, rubbish and – in what doubtless was considered the gravest insult that could be flung at it – “film music”.

My affection for it, however, only deepens; I hear Respighi’s genius as an orchestrator more profoundly every time I listen to the piece. I seize each new recording with interest. It has been recorded dozens of times – some authorities say more than 100 – and one suspects it is that sheer popularity and ubiquity that so turns people against it.

It is normally recorded with the two other works in Respighi’s Roman Trilogy – Fontane di Roma (Fountains of Rome), which he wrote in 1916 and was his first attempt to capture the sights, sounds and romance of the city where he taught music; and Feste Romane (Roman Festivals), from 1928. The trilogy has recaptured my attention because of a brand new, Technicolor recording on Chandos, played by the Sinfonia of London conducted by John Wilson. One admires Wilson’s ambition: almost every great conductor since Toscanini – Karajan, Dutoit, Reiner and Muti, for example – has recorded these crowd-pleasers.

But this disc, helped by state-of-the-art recording and Wilson’s clear understanding that one pleases a crowd in these works through feeling and precision, puts no foot wrong. The clarity is stunning: one hears every instrument clearly, even the magnificent organ chord at the very end of I pini della Via Appia – The Pines of the Appian Way.

Respighi came from Bologna, but in 1913 became professor of composition at the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia in Rome. He befriended Edita Broglio, an artist, who sent him photographs she had taken of four of the city’s fountains: and these inspired his first tone poem. It takes us beyond the classicism that pervades much of Respighi’s music, experimenting instead with colour and texture. The care with which Wilson directs the music emphasises the luxurious depth of the composer’s cityscapes.

Toscanini was scheduled to perform it in late 1916, but war got in the way. Respighi had doubts about the work after another conductor premiered it in 1917, and decided not to go to La Scala when Toscanini eventually conducted it in 1918, but it was received almost in triumph. (Those who disparage Fountains today should note what critics said then about its “fantastic originality”.) One detects the influence of Respighi’s contemporary Maurice Ravel throughout the trilogy, but even Ravel would never have written music as exhibitionist as this.

By 1924, when Pines was completed, Italy had changed, with Mussolini’s fascist regime taking over. Respighi was no political fanatic and came to an accommodation with the new order, something easier to accomplish before Mussolini embraced Hitler. There is an idea of Italy, and of Italy’s long and heroic past, that comes out in the boisterousness and display of the piece: though in the overwhelming finale, as a Roman legion marches in triumph up the Appian Way, there is for some tastes a little too much of the militaristic Italian ideal the new dictator was trying to recreate.

Wilson takes the whole work absolutely straight: he moves from the sparkling joy of the pines by the Villa Borghese, through the beautiful solemnity of those at the catacombs and the serenity of the Janiculum, until changing the mood with the relentless, throbbing drumbeat of, as the cliché has it, the glory that was Rome. Often accused of bombast, this finale glitters with detail and is a showcase for the orchestration. Wilson’s tempos are perfect throughout the trilogy.

Festivals is the least known of the three, perhaps because it is more impressionistic and in its bursts of drama and riotousness lacks the beauty and the great tunes of the other two works. By now, Respighi’s mastery of orchestration is complete: and in Wilson’s interpretation the piece was brought to life for me as never before. Until I heard this recording I thought there were two truly outstanding accounts of this trilogy: by Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra on RCA from 1949; and Riccardo Muti and the Philadelphia Orchestra on EMI from 1984. Now I believe there are three.