Respighi: Works for Orchestra / Mustonen, Oramo, FRSO

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RESPIGHI Concerto in modo misolidio 1. Fountains of Rome • Sakari Oramo, cond; 1 Olli Mustonen (pn); Finnish RSO • ONDINE 1165 (53:53) Sakari Oramo...

RESPIGHI Concerto in modo misolidio 1. Fountains of Rome Sakari Oramo, cond; 1 Olli Mustonen (pn); Finnish RSO ONDINE 1165 (53:53)

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.

FANFARE: Phillip Scott

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 (rather like Leopold Stokowski), who can be so perverse in his performances of the standard repertoire, 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, and it's a skimpy disc-mate, bringing total playing time only to 53 minutes. It would have been so much nicer to have some more neglected Respighi--my vote would have gone to a new version of Metamorphoseon, which shares a similar aesthetic to that of the piano concerto, or perhaps even the similarly modal Concerto gregoriano for violin. Still, as the finest version available of the main item, this disc will be self-recommending to Respighi fans (and piano buffs too).

--David Hurwitz,

Product Description:

  • Release Date: September 28, 2010

  • UPC: 761195116524

  • Catalog Number: ODE 1165-2

  • Label: Ondine

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Composer: Ottorino Respighi

  • Conductor: Sakari Oramo

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra

  • Performer: Olli Mustonen