Album review: Ottorino Respighi – Feste Romane/Pini di Roma


Genre: Classical (Late Romantic)
Country: Japan
Release date: 1982
Label: Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab
Format: 12” vinyl
Catalog number: MFQR 1-507

Lorin Maazel – conductor
with the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra


Feste Romane I: Circenses



II: Il giubelio



III: L’Ottobrata



IV: La Befana



Pini di Roma I: I pini de Villa Borghese



II: I pini presso una catacomba



III: I pini del Gianicolo



IV: I pini della Via Appia


Total running time:


I was never there, could never have been there, yet I remember it as vividly as if I was. The break of dawn on the Roman Campagna, the cool breeze of a Mediterranean spring morning blowing among the mushroom-shaped pines. As the first rays of sunlight spill onto the sky, a terrible, rumbling clamor can be heard along the great Appian Way. From over the hill come the blare of trumpets, the roar of shouting men, and the tramp of innumerable hobnailed boots, louder and nearer until the sun at last peeks over the crest just as the Romans do, gilding the lorica-clad shoulders of the first wave of a seemingly endless press of legionaries, thousands, tens of thousands, chariots, horses, captives and plunder from faraway lands, and the Consul, face painted red in triumph, gazing imperiously ahead as the deadly column wends its way towards Rome to receive its laurels and ovation. A dream? No, a symphonic poem—a scene painted in sound with all the skill of a Titian or van Eyck, pressed onto a vinyl disc spinning on a turntable in my parents’ living room, given the force of a mystical vision by a child’s imagination. I could have not been older than about five years old, but I know it was at that moment that I decided I loved classical music.

Some people would say what I listened to was a classic, a great recording of a great piece of 20th century music, as part of perhaps the most astonishing series of records of all time, a record people gladly spend $200 or more to acquire in mint condition. Others would say I had fallen for two clever, evil tricks, one played on me by the composer, and the other played on me by the record itself. The UHQR edition of the climactic “I pini della Via Appia” from Pini di Roma, they would say, is musical propaganda for empire and conquest, wrapped in a sly technical forgery, Il Duce (who notoriously considered Pini di Roma one of his favorite pieces) dolled up in eyeliner and lipstick.

What constitutes an authentic recording of an authentic performance? From at least as far back as John Philip Sousa’s concern over the rise of “talking machines” in 1906, the inherent artificiality of recording, its thing-ness, has always stood at odds with the fleeting, embodied, always uncertain experience of hearing music made without microphones in a live setting. The world of European classical music, ever since the advent of recording, has never really been comfortable with what recording can do to or with music. There has always been this dream of the authentic, objective, “neutral” performance that can somehow be captured onto a recording without anything mediating the experience, the “orchestra in your living room”.

But how neutral can a recording really be? Every possible setup and system is an artistic decision even if the technicians and engineers don’t realize they’re stepping into the role of artist. From the simple three-microphone setup of vintage Living Stereos to the intimacy of modern close-mic recording, whether in a hall or in studio, every recording and record of classical music is, as much as a rock or reggae or (horrors!) pop record, artificial in the most literal sense, a made thing. What would a classical music record sound like if, instead of recoiling from this fact, exploited it, enhancing itself like records from those aforementioned popular music forms into something that is not merely a “counterfeit” of a night at the symphony, but an experience only a record player can deliver?

Enter Mobile Fidelity’s UHQR series, a very rare (limited to 5000 copies per title, and only eight titles) series of ultra-premium records subcontracted to JVC in the early 1980s. They were heinously expensive new and even moreso now, with even the cheapest titles being worth well over $100, and I consider it an immense privilege to have experienced even one of these. As well as the absolute best quality money can buy (including 200-gram discs made years before modern hipster vinyl made it commonplace), these records also had unique mixes designed for the greatest possible wow-factor, and few deliver it more than this.

You are too poor to afford this record.

If the typical classical record seeks to create a sort of impression of attending the symphony, the UHQR classical records (this one and a recording of Holst’s The Planets), sound like a Brobdingnagian symphony of giants, taking the ever-increasing size and power of the 19th century Romantic orchestra to a conclusion that was simply not possible without microphones and equalizers. The bass instruments, and the 16’ and 32’ pipes of the organ above all, have a power and presence that would shame your average dubstep or djent band; this is bass that you feel as much as you hear, yet it remains tightly controlled, never intruding into the space occupied by the rest of the orchestra. When this album sweeps you up in its raw, overpowering majesty, it is hard to care if the organ doesn’t really sound that deep or the percussion not quite as forceful according to the standards of Correct Classical Music Recording, which themselves are almost as arbitrary as the judges’ standards of singing on American Idol. The dynamic range is absolutely astonishing, transitioning from the most delicate subtleties to a violent press of bass trombones and timpani in movements like “Circenses” and “I pini della Via Appia” that hits with the obliterating force of a death metal record, and potentially landing anywhere in between.

That quintessentially Romantic force, even in the more restrained form this recording takes in the original 1977 Decca release and and the standard MFSL edition (the latter of which I also have), has been a point of contention among classical music listeners and scholars. Not only did Respighi’s forcefulness in his deployment of the orchestra often result in “vulgar” sounds according to the prevailing Modernist tastes of the era, and Respighi’s shameful kissing of Benito Mussolini’s ring after the 1921 fascist putsch, instead of joining contemporaries like Arturo Toscanini in exile, provided a seemingly inexhaustible store of ammunition for Respighi’s detractors in postwar European academia, which had appointed itself the tastemaker and curator of classical music whether anyone else liked it or not. And, of course, Respighi brought a Latin sensuality to his bombast that, to the puritanical Germanic (and in the case of those who followed Heinrich Schenker, openly Germanocentric) mindset of the music theorists, made it even more offensive. I daresay that if the mid-century intellectuals who made the latter halves of their careers beating themselves and mass culture up for failing to stop fascism had been willing to stoop to a bit of vulgarity, sentimentality, and populist appeal themselves, perhaps people might have actually listened to their warnings and fewer people could have died. Just a thought. But I digress.

This particular recording benefits massively from Lorin Maazel’s masterful direction. Certainly there are many performances of Respighi’s Roman trilogy (this record comprises the second and third parts; the first entry, 1916’s Fontane di Roma is not present) that emphasize the more crudely triumphal aspects of it, but Maazel’s and the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra temper Respighi’s Roman fantasies with an awareness of the dark side of such sentiment; an atmosphere of violence and dread saturates this recording that makes it resonate with me far more than the crass triumphalism or mathematical austerity of certain other versions, capturing the grime and blood of Rome as much as the marble and olive trees—a city not just of Caesars and popes, but of slaves, captives, and the innumerable, anonymous dead.

Indeed it is the dead who seem to take center stage in both Feste Romane and Pini di Roma, existing in a sort of Roman dreamtime where ancient, medieval, and modern (for the 1920s) Rome exist side by side in the collective, cosmopolitan imaginations of Romans past and present (not just Italians, but Greeks, Phoenicians, Celts, Goths, Jews, Berbers, Arabs, Persians, Lombards, Germans, and many others who at one point or another called the “Eternal City” their home), paganism and Christianity, Nero’s persecutions and Catholic pilgrimages, solemn funerary rites in the catacombs and drunken revelry in the Epiphany. Each suite features four movements joined more by the free association of dream logic than actual connection in time or space, breaking down the wall between past and present, between history and myth. And I’m just an American, from a land that pretends to have sprung up from nothing, that has distorted and destroyed its own history to avoid facing up to it, a foreigner who heard of Rome through stories and books—how much more magnificent must it all sound to someone who has lived among physical, tangible evidence of the lives and works of peoples spread across a hundred generations or more?

Despite being the chronologically later and less famous of the two suites, Feste Romane (1928) gets side A and first billing on the front cover of the extravagantly huge foam-lined box that contains the album and certificate of authenticity (but, annoyingly, no liner notes). Feste Romane is very front-loaded, with almost all the best moments appearing on “Circenses” in the first five minutes. Compared to most other renditions I’ve heard, Maazel injects a sense of irony, perspective, and ambiguity into Respighi’s traditional blood-and-guts depiction of innocent Christians thrown by the cruel Nero to the lions, giving the Christian martyrs’ plainchant-like melodies a harsh, insistent, even militaristic edge, giving the lions a good run for their money and foreshadowing Christianity’s own atrocities. But most importantly, “Circenses” kicks ass, especially with the UHQR treatment, the low brass rattling your skull but still agile enough to strike in unison with the punishing bludgeonry of the almost blastbeat-like percussion as the movement reaches its murderous conclusion, formal logic dissolving into near tonal anarchy and degenerating further into isolated chords blasted out like primal screams, followed by a deathly stillness. From the opening trumpet fanfare announcing the start of the grisly festivities to the last furious blow, the movement whizzes by in a blur of themes and developments, leaving the listener with no time to breathe before something new and violent happens.

The middle two movements of Feste Romane, on the other hand, cool the temperature considerably, and their more pacific subject matter exacerbates Respighi’s tendency towards sentimentalism and eliminates the pervasive feeling of uncertainty, instability, and fear that Maazel so deftly lends to the darker parts. “Il giubelio” is a po-facedly pious fantasy of medieval pilgrims traveling to Rome during the Jubilee to receive their indulgence from their dirty, dirty sins, as paternalistic and moralizing as “Circenses” is seductive and anarchic—there will no pruriently rooting for the lions here, as Respighi exercises iron-fisted control of the piece’s emotional expression, and runs away from the flirting with dissonance at the end of “Circenses” to the safety of a very conservative harmonic language. The swelling, swollen climax with its confused brass and organ rumbles tries to convey the power and majesty of divinity without any sense of danger, an obvious and unsublime My Daddy trying to pass itself off as an Our Father, or maybe like a The Onion article I read in print the late ‘90s with a Buddhist monk doing Muhammad Ali-style trash talk about how he is the serenest, only it’s not trying to be funny. And of course it has the slowest tempo and therefore goes on for eight minutes, the longest of any movement on either side.

While “Il giubelio” has a steady push to a lackluster climax, “L’Ottobrata” never seems to be going anywhere in particular, bouncing among a number of fairly rote pastoral themes—hunting horns, romantic serenades, and babbling brooks—seemingly at the composer’s whim. It’s pretty, but emptily so, like a musical Hummel figurine. There’s a moment of surprise when a mandolin joins the traditional orchestral forces to deliver some lead work, but none of the material it has to play is compelling and its thin, fragile tone is dwarfed by the surrounding orchestral instruments, their timbres bulging with Mobile Fidelity’s technological super serum.

Feste Romane concludes with “La Befana”, which brings back some of the thrill and excitement that is this record’s lifeblood. “La Befana” portrays a tableau of revelers on the streets of Rome on the day of the Epiphany, lurching wildly from one ecstatic scene to another with anarchic, unpredictable changes of chords and themes, cutting dissonances, and “drunken” trombone playing that stumbles through a Verdi-esque song melody first hinted at on “L’Ottobrata”, seeming to hit notes that are slightly off on purpose. The frenetic pace is even faster than “Circenses”, reaching its frenzied peak at the very end where the whole orchestra pulls itself together harmonically and rhythmically for a blazing, kaleidoscopic final stretch that seems to draw on almost all the sounds and styles explored on previous movements. It’s tremendous fun, and even makes up to some extent for the doldrums of “Il giubelio” and “L’Ottobrata”.

The second side, Pini di Roma (1924), is where this record really gets good, however. It features a much stronger sense of overall progression than Feste Romane, not just within individual movements but among the movements. Not only do the movements form a cohesive sequence of moods and impressions like a traditional symphony, but also are linked by time of day in a matter not unlike a much simpler version of Richard Strauss’ Eine Alpensinfonie, transitioning gradually from afternoon to dusk to night to morning as the suite progresses. It’s also a much less optimistic and “safe” sounding work than Feste Romane, giving Maazel’s brutalist approach and the UHQR mix’s earthshaking power more latitude to work their magic on music that, in any other hands, can tend towards the trite and silly.

The darkness isn’t immediately apparent in the opening “I pini di Villa Borghese”, a depiction of children running, shrieking, and playing amid the Renaissance-era gardens of the Borghese family, full of rapid-fire transitions and sudden stabs of dissonance that seem more playful than threatening. But only three minutes in and the children’s games disappear to make way for the grim “I pini presso una catacomba”. Soft trombones and horns play fragments of morbid hymns as the scene lingers near the entrance, while the bass instruments sketch out the depths and darkness of the catacomb. The program mentions priests chanting, but the movement to me has always suggested complete desolation, with the broken, tragic nature of the hymnal melodies suggesting more of a ghostly, long-dead presence than a living one, echoing through time centuries after the catacomb has fallen into abandonment and disrepair. As the listener is drawn in, the basses and organ increasingly dominate until the organist absolutely lets loose with the big pipes in a monumental, thunderous display—if you ever needed a record to really put your system’s bass to the test, this would be just about the ultimate one, a deep bass so powerful and absolute as to be not just sonically but physically overwhelming. It will also test your acoustics too, and without any soundproofing panels on the walls you may find some of your furniture vibrating in sympathy.

For a piece (the composer’s whole oeuvre, really) that is infamous for bombast and surface-level engagement, the introspective, nocturnal “I pini del Gianicolo” comes as something of an outlier, but a welcome one as a breather between the very intense movements before and after it. The principal theme is a circuitous, birdsong-like melody that drapes itself over the coy, mystical, intensely atmospheric chords of the harmony, first introduced with the clarinet and passed with variations to several other instruments in turn. Respighi is far less demonstrative with his tone-painting than normal; his scene here mysterious, ambiguous in both content and mood, and seemingly private, resisting easy understanding. The only fly in the wine here is Respighi’s own recording of an actual nightingale that is played over the orchestra at the very end of the piece—not only is it unnecessary, overly literal, and not related melodically to the rest of the material (after all, birds can’t read sheet music), but the old 78 rpm record used to provide the sound is of much lower audio quality than the real instruments, and its thin, noisy, scratchy timbres are very out of place among the lushness of the rest of the recording.

Finally we come to “I pini della Via Appia”, the climax to end all climaxes, a gigantic crescendo that builds from a quiet murmur to utterly monumental proportions. Here’s where record once more capitalizes on the sonic qualities of the UHQR edition. It builds and builds and builds until what seem like a thousand instruments are unloading with everything they have, yet the mix remains clear at ear-splitting volume. The sheer visceral thrill of it is, to my knowledge, completely unmatched anywhere in classical records; even the UHQR of Zubin Mehta conducting Holst’s The Planets is downright modest by comparison. But it’s not a fun toy-soldiers romp as some versions tend to be, it’s genuinely scary, the column of professional killers radiating terror and threat as much as awe and glory.

While not all of the music on Feste Romane/Pini di Roma is great, enough of it is, and the sonic experience is so rich and unique, that I certainly think that it is one of the greatest classical records that I’ve ever heard. But is it great enough, when even marginal copies sell in the triple digits? My copy was in the family before I was born, but if you don’t have it, it’s hard to actually recommend you seek it out unless you’re truly rich, and I think it’s a shame that the UHQR mixes never saw rereleases, on digital or vinyl. Music like this—passionate, evocative, not excessively complicated, and hitting with the power of ten Hans Zimmers put together, makes such a wonderful corrective to the idea of European orchestral music as something inherently staid, stale, and boring, or, conversely, sweet, sappy, and cheesy. It could inspire young musicians to revisit the orchestra and reimagine it to create new musical worlds. It could touch other people like it touched me all those years ago. But it won’t do anything of those things if only five thousand people can have it. This music deserves to be heard, and not locked away in the listening rooms of well-off audiophiles.

Rating: 90%

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