Respighi’s Great “Sinfonia Drammatica” Reissued


RESPIGHI: Sinfonia Drammatica / BBC Philharmonic Orchestra; Sir Edward Downes, conductor / Chandos CHAN9213

When this recording, made in November 1992, was first issued on CD, critics waxed enthusiastic over it. Finally, they felt, we had an orchestral piece worthy of Respighi, whose name has survived mostly as the composer of three “orchestral showcase” tone poems. Written in 1913-14, with the world on the brink of war, it leans heavily on Strauss and Mahler yet manages to express itself in terms that are entirely Respighi’s own. The splashy, almost garish opening with its pounding tympani gives way eventually to more reflective music; in fact, much of the symphony leans towards a slow pace. All in all, however, it is an exceptionally well-written work, surprisingly fresh and always interesting regardless of the pace of the music or the length of the movements. For the record, the first movement runs 25:05, the second 17:15 and the third 18:06.

One of the reasons the music works so well is that Respighi seemed to be operating at a peak of creative inspiration. At times he could scarcely contain himself, so remarkable are his themes and the way in which he knitted them together. This music “tells a story,” as musicians used to say; the juxtaposition of various themes is nigh perfect, always keeping the listener’s interest. Harmonically, the score is closer to Wagner and Strauss than it is to Mahler; there are but a few moments in which Respighi used the same sort of chord positions or strange transpositions Mahler did, yet in terms of both mood and size the symphony sounds distinctly Mahlerian, almost like something written before the first symphony. Respighi also managed to create tremendous atmosphere in places by the use of soft, mysterious-sounding percussion behind soft, slightly ominous wind passages. One critic felt that the symphony also reflected “the amiably exotic figure of Rimsky-Korsakov,” one of Respighi’s teachers, but I feel this music has far greater interest and is far more complex than anything Rimsky ever wrote. The only facet of the work that reflects Rimsky-Korsakov is his mastery of orchestration. Respighi was never at a loss for the right instrumental blends at the proper moment to express his ideas, which is one of the reasons (among many) for the music’s wonderful flow.

In the second movement one hears allusions to César Franck and Tchaikovsky, but again it is mostly in terms of mood; the themes are his own, and he manages to make this movement sound like an extension of the first. The BBC Philharmonic plays superbly; seldom have they sounded so rich-toned yet clearly transparent in texture. When the music calls for mystery, they manage to enclose the sound in a patina of warmth; when drama is what’s needed, they open up with biting brass and pungent winds. Indeed, it is partly due to their playing that the music makes such a strong impression. Even the spot solos by individual musicians (i.e., the violin in the second movement) are played with a great feeling and communication.

The third movement sounds for all the world like a cross between Franck and Mahler—an odd combination, to be sure, but curiously a good mixture. The powerful, rolling theme almost steamrolls the listener as it surges along, eventually backing off the power to feature yet another spot solo (this one by a clarinet) before lower strings pick up the thread while the upper strings play apposite, swirling figures around them. Eventually a forlorn bassoon, playing the low range, mixes with muted tympani for yet another mysterious passage before the orchestra opens up and then retreats from the sound barrier. Respighi managed to time his effects splendidly in this movement; stabbing strings and violin tremolos, pounding trombones and descending chromatic figures played by the trumpets come and go. I may be wrong, but the way this orchestration is written I almost got the feeling that a live performance would have a “panoramic” effect, much like the works of Berlioz.

Without trying to make too much of a negative comparison, Respighi’s symphony a far better work than Havergal Brian’s overrated “Gothic” Symphony of the 1920s, and the reason is its musical cogency. Brian came up with some very good ideas, but at that stage of his development he hadn’t quite figured out how to make them flow into one another. Respighi, at age 34-35, had already arrived at a point where he was a master of form. What you wonder after listening to this work is, Why didn’t he write other symphonies in the same vein? Possible time constraints, or other interests, or maybe he felt it was better to leave symphonies to the French and Germans. We’ll probably never know for sure, but this deeply committed and superbly-bound performance by the late Edward Downes, surely one of the greatest conductors Great Britain ever produced, is more than convincing enough to suggest that others schedule the work in live performance. It’s truly a shame that they don’t.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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