Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936)

There are composers one is aware of but have little connection with one’s own musical interests, and Respighi fits that category for me. He is often described as someone whose brilliance is not matched by substance. He uses a large orchestra with great skill, notably in his three popular Roman tone poems and although vivid and imaginative works, for me they are in danger of outstaying their welcome. Respighi often orchestrated other people’s compositions, maintaining their spirit and giving pleasure to audiences that otherwise might never have heard them.

At the beginning of this series of blogs I rather pompously said that for me music has to ‘say’ something, rather than just being a form of entertainment. In that frame of mind I would then have argued that Respighi failed the test, being more of an entertainer than an enlightener. A disc given me as a birthday present this week makes me revise that judgement, and to be a bit more honest about enjoying flamboyant sound, with or without a message.

In his notes for this Chandos record (CHAN 10388) David Heald writes enthusiastically about Respighi’s vast output which is much more than the colourful orchestral pieces by which he is best known. But the Chandos disc is devoted to four typically luxuriant pieces, including an early work, Preludio, corale e fuga with which he won a composition prize when he was still studying at the Liceo Musicale in Bologna. It’s splendid music, especially the fugue which ends in a glorious blaze of colour. Respighi, when he was a playing as a member of the theatre orchestra at St.Petersburg, studied for a time with Rimsky-Korsakov –‘vitally important to me’ he said later – and you can plainly hear that influence in his larger compositions.

Other works on this disc, which I have enjoyed hugely, include transcriptions of piano music by Rosssini (‘Rossiana’) and five of the piano etudes (Op.

33 and 39) by Rachmaninoff who when he heard of Respighi’s intention, sent some of his thoughts behind the music to the Italian to help him in his project. The other work on this disc is a short four movement essay for orchestra called ‘Burlesca’, which shows the influence of Dvorak whom Respighi much admired. He had, as Heald says, this ability to assimilate the style of other composers without forfeiting his own individuality.

It was a review a this recording by the BBC Philharmonic under its conductor Gianandrea Noseda that encouraged me to suggest it as a present, and I agree with the reviewer’s comment that Noseda conducts all four works with a ‘devil-may-care brilliance’, while the orchestra’s playing is ‘staggering’. Worth buying!