RECORDS / Double Play: Where's the face behind the mask?: Edward Seckerson and Stephen Johnson review new releases of Respighi rarities and familiar Stravinsky
Saturday 16 July 1994
Geoffrey Tozer (piano), BBC Philharmonic / Sir Edward Downes
(Chandos CHAN 9285)
ONCE again we are in Chandos's debt. This may not be the best of their rediscovered Respighi, but it's further proof that there is life, and work of real quality, beyond the more familiar Roman spectaculars and stylish repackagings of other people's tunes.
As ever, the presentation is stronger than the organisation. So, if form and compositional clear-sightedness are more important to you than incident, then this is likely to be a long haul. It's hard getting a handle on either piece. You go for the ride or not at all: protracted improvisations, elaborations, gorgeous flights of lyric fancy, big tunes with a whiff of the verismo about them (Respighi's operas urgently need reviving).
The early A minor Concerto is a real dog's dinner - all the gods in Respighi's pianistic pantheon present, correct and working overtime. But only the true original could make a daring flourish up the keyboard and drag the entire orchestra with him into a completely new key. That's the slow movement's moment of truth. Concerto in modo misolidio is stained-glass Respighi, ancient church modes writ large, larger, and largest. But maturity brings an ever more sensitive ear: the ability, for instance, to take the passacaglia theme from the finale and transform it, very simply, into something rare and beautiful.
These performers are wonderful advocates. All right, so you indulge and still leave the table feeling hungry. Does it really matter when you can always go back for more? ES
SIBELIUS came to hate Valse triste; Tchaikovsky devoutly loathed 1812; and if you wanted to be sure of Beethoven's undying hatred, all you had to do was say how much you liked his early Septet. Composers in all ages have turned against their most successful children and heaped praise on the apparent failures. Could that be why Respighi claimed that his Concerto in modo misolidio would live on when his other scores turned yellow on library shelves? There are fine details in this huge, sprawling canvas - not least the gorgeous tune in the slow movement - but on the whole I sympathise with those early audiences who evidently longed (or should I say pined) for the unfailingly magical Respighi of the Roman tone poems.
The earlier Concerto in A minor is stranger still - wildly eclectic (you don't have to be a Romantic Concerto specialist to play spot the influence), but again intermittently brilliant and beautiful. I'm glad I heard both works in these recordings, though. The sound is Chandos at its best, warm and atmospheric but also clearly focused, and Geoffrey Tozer is a very persuasive soloist, with all the elements of Respighi's multi-faceted piano style firmly in his grasp. Meanwhile Sir Edward Downes brings the sureness and understanding he has shown throughout this Chandos Respighi cycle. If he turns up more treasures like the Concerto gregoriano for violin (CHAN 9232), the quest will have been worth all the effort. SJ
STRAVINSKY: Firebird; Symphonies of Wind Instruments (original versions)
London Symphony Orchestra / Kent Nagano
(Virgin VC 5 45032 2)
MORE Ravel than Rimsky. This is probably the most ethereal, the most diaphanous Firebird you'll ever hear. Breathe, and it could all just blow away. From the first step we take into Kashchey's enchanted garden, with its tendrils of whispering glissandi, it's as if the sounds are more imagined than heard. The play of light and shade is astonishingly subtle, Nagano using the medium (exemplary recording) to achieve an undreamt of lucidity of texture right down to every last semi- quaver of the celeste part. The soft playing is exquisite, the 'Berceuse' transcendental. But remember where this music came from.
I'd like the Russianism, the gaudier pigments of the piece back, please. Even the 'Infernal Dance' generates only a controlled excitement. And what of the earth- tones, the folkloric edge that so strikingly offsets the balance and euphony of the Symphonies of Wind Instruments? Polished to a high gloss. ES
NO QUESTION, there are things in both works that benefit from Nagano's fastidious, keen-eared approach - clarity is vital in Stravinsky. But is it - as the composer himself sometimes claimed - the essence of good Stravinsky playing? The older man, the Stravinsky who related music to mathematics rather than to literature, may have thought so, but the young Russian who wrote the 1910 version of The Firebird was quite capable of smothering the piano score in Scriabinesque expression marks: timidante, Con maligna gioia, Sostenuto mystico . . . Simon Rattle's EMI recording brought some of this youthful ardour back to life along with the lavish scoring. Nagano is coolly efficient in comparison, sometimes gently graceful, but hardly approaching the tension and muscular energy of Stravinsky's own 1961 recording. The famous 'Danse infernale' strikes few sparks. It's a Firebird without the fire.
It comes after one of the dullest performances of the Symphonies of Wind Instruments I can remember - so much for the idea that all you have to do is let this piece run like clockwork. Even the harmonic and colouristic surprises of the original version failed to keep me glued. Surely part of the fascination of the Stravinskian mask is in the fleeting glimpses it allows of the human face behind it. Not here. SJ
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