“More facility than substance”: perhaps an apt description of the music of Ottorino Respighi. Certainly on the evidence of last night’s concert, featuring the three ever popular Roman tone poems, one could have been left with that impression, despite the strong advocacy of the orchestra in gleaming form and Juraj Valčuha taking a serious and detailed approach to the scores.

Juraj Valčuha © Vermont Classics
Juraj Valčuha
© Vermont Classics

They kicked off with the earliest of the set Fontane di Roma from 1917, which presents an impressionistic aural pictures of four famous fountains in Rome. Sounding like a mix of Rimsky-Korsakov, Debussy, Richard Strauss and even Bax, it is the least individual of the three tone poems. It’s striking modal themes outstay their welcome at times, but it is also the most poetic of the set. The performance brought out this poetry and the woodwind playing was exemplary. The central climax had a golden sheen and depth of sound that was remarkable.

We were then briefly taken away from Rome to the sultry world of Andalusia. Manuel De Falla’s exquisite Nights in the Gardens of Spain is a work of miraculous delicacy and concision. Unlike Respighi, whose thematic material is often stretched to the limit and beyond, it is evident in all of de Falla’s music that he has laboured long and hard to condense and control his use of melody and harmony. The results, as demonstrated in this this performance, were a sense of formal cohesion and emotional satisfaction.

Not exactly a piano concerto, with its deceptively simple piano part seeming at times to be part of the orchestra and not a virtuoso showpiece, may have contributed to its rare appearance in the concert hall. Ingrid Fliter, following in the footsteps of Alicia de Larrocha, made every attempt to remain within the modest confines of the score and managed to shine through by the use of precise dynamics and poetic phrasing. The first movement, “En el Generalife”, was a sensuous delight and the striking rhythms of the finale, “En los jardines de la Sierra de Córdoba”, had a wonderful controlled danger and power. A performance to cherish all round, with Valčuha drawing out a refined performance from the orchestra to match the soloist at every turn.

After interval the second Respighi played was the last to be composed, Feste romane, from 1926. And what a gaudy pleasure this is, although musically the weakest link. For the first time Valčuha gave up trying to make a case for musical substance and he let the orchestra off its leash. The opening section “Circenses”, depicting gladiators in the arena, did so in a blaze of thrilling brassy discords and the riotous final section; “La Befana”, sounded more like an orgy than a celebration of Christmas. The very rowdy coda was as over the top as it should be.

After that assault to the senses, the last piece to be played was the Pini di Roma which was successfully performed for the first time in Rome in 1924. This is the most impressive of the tone poems, combining as it does poetry and splendour in an irresistible mix. Of course, the Philharmonia continued to show us that they were “to the manner born” in this repertoire, with more exquisite woodwind playing in the middle movements and rounded brass playing in the triumphal finale, “I pini della Via Appia”. The audience was enveloped in a blanket of sound in the final bars, which was truly overwhelming. 

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