March 2002

Respighi - Pines of Rome, Belkis, Queen of Sheba Suite, Dance of the Gnomes
Reference Recordings RR-95CD
Released: 2001

by John Crossett

Musical Performance *****
Recording Quality ****1/2
Overall Enjoyment *****

[Reviewed on CD]Among the most treasured of orchestral war-horses is Respighi’s Pines Of Rome. There have been quite a few versions available to music lovers in the 75 years since it was written, such as ones by Toscinni, Reiner, Bernstein, Maazel, Von Karajan and Dutoit. This new Reference Recording CD is a welcome addition to that august company. Of the other two works herein, Belkis, Queen Of Sheba Suite and Dance Of The Gnomes, one finds fewer options available, which is only one of the reasons why this CD will be appreciated by both music lovers and audiophiles alike.

Reference Recording’s recent association with Eiji Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra has given a certain consistency to Reference’s orchestral sound. Here, Oue comes up with a masterful interpretation of the Pines that stands favorably with others I’ve heard. Respighi’s composition was written to aid the listener in visualizing the four areas around Rome that he depicts musically. For instance, listen to how the tension builds during the Minnesota’s playing of "The Pines Near The Catacombs." You can almost picture a Christian funeral procession bearing the deceased into his final resting place, under the noses of their Roman masters. Or take "The Pines Of The Appian Way," and see if you can’t conjure up a vision of the triumphant legions marching up that most famous of Roman roads after yet another victory. All the passion, danger, and tonal colors are present in Oue’s reading. It's easy to find yourself captivated.

But it is listening to the two other works presented here, The Dance Of The Gnomes and Belkis, Queen Of Sheba Suite, that may impress you most. For his Gnomes, Respighi based his work on a poem by Claudio Clausetti. That poem described the luring in of a male gnome by two females in some sort of mad ritual, the passion of the evening, and the discarding of the now dead corpse in the first light of morning by the females witnessed by the male’s friends, and then an insane dance by the survivors. As with his work in The Pines, Oue again presents all the passion Respighi wrote into the score. This work can hold its place among other macabre orchestral compositions such as Mussorsky’s Night On Bald Mountain, and Berlioz’s "Witches Sabbath" from Symphony Fantastique.

My favorite on this disc was the Belkis, Queen Of Sheba Suite. This version is the first half of an orchestral suite Respighi wrote attempting to condense his ballet/opera into a more manageable size. The composer died before he could begin the second half. (The original ballet score was immense, so large in fact that Respighi’s publisher declined to engrave anything more than a piano version.) Here, we are given a 24-minute suite in four parts. Beginning with the wafting, somewhat nebulous visions of "Solomon’s Dream," the work meanders through the wonder of "The Dance Of Belkis At Dawn," before entering the frenzy of the "War Dance" and concluding with the mounting passion of "Orgiastic Dance." Oue and the Minnesota play all their cards correctly -- you can’t help but get carried away listening.

The sound given to this CD by Keith Johnson stands up very favorably with the music. It’s wonderful. The bass foundation is full and deep, offering just the right balance for the orchestra. The strings sing sweetly, the drums boom appropriately, and the piano, when used (as in "The Pines Of The Janiculum"), is sized as you would hear it live. Add in a soundstage that is both wide and deep and you have a recording with very little to find fault with.

Following closely on the heels of Reference’s superb-sounding Copland release, this Respighi recording continues its run of outstanding newly recorded classical CDs. Although I am not the lover of classical music that I am of, let’s say, jazz and the blues, I will admit to becoming very curious as to what the next release from Reference Recordings will be.