Record Review: Ottorino Respighi Transcriptions of Bach and Rachmaninov

Ottorino Respighi, an early 20th century contemporary of the far more widely known Puccini, is recognised largely only due to the popularity of his ‘Roman Trilogy’, though the composer also wrote a substantial amount of music including orchestral, chamber, and vocal works, as well as numerous arrangements of Renaissance and Baroque works. His studies under names such as Giuseppe Martucci (a leading Wagnarian at the time), Luigi Torchi, and Rimsky Korsakov led to an interest in a vast range of musical styles, creating a fascinating blend of neo-classical, Italian, romantic, and impressionist styles in his writing. He is a much overlooked composer, and it is a shame he is remembered as somewhat of a one-trick-pony with the Roman Trilogy. 


John Neschling conducts the Royal Liêge Philharmonic Orchestra in this 2021 release of Respighi’s lesser known but deeply enjoyable transcriptions. Neschling is a Brazilian conductor and composer known for his work with the Vienna State Opera, Opera de Bordeaux, Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo, and his appearances with European orchestras such as the Royal Liêge Philharmonic Orchestra as we see here. Since 2014 Neschling has been passionate about sharing and re-discovering the music of Respighi, commissioning a series of orchestral recordings of which this is the fifth. 


This recording features Respighi’s transcriptions and orchestral arrangements of well known works by J.S. Bach and S. Rachmaninov. What is particularly fascinating is the way in which Respighi, and indeed the musicians of the Royal Liêge Philharmonic, have given the listener an entirely different way to appreciate these compositions. Works such as J.S. Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in D major, which are most commonly heard played on an organ, are skilfully arranged by Respighi into engaging and emotive orchestral works. Some critics take a dim view of the adaptations made to these compositions to bring them slightly closer to the tastes of the contemporary audience, however Edward Elgar, also known for arranging Bach for larger orchestras, commented that he wanted to explore what Bach would have done should he have had a full orchestra at his disposal. This is exactly what Respighi is doing, and his subtle adaptations make the music if anything more interesting from a compositional point of view, allowing us to appreciate his skill as a composer and arranger to a greater extent than if he had simply expanded the orchestration of the original music. 


The track that stands out the most to me, and demonstrates the unmatched detail available on a super audio CD, is the first track, Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in D Major. This arrangement dates from 1929, just after the successful Roman Festivals, and is scored for more instruments than Bach could have dreamed of; the CD notes describe full strings, triple woodwind, bass clarinet, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, and piano four hands. Respighi demonstrates his remarkable orchestral dexterity by never losing the genius of Bach’s contrapuntal writing amongst the large number of instruments, and maintaining the rich, lavish texture of the original composition without trying to imitate the sonority of an organ. An Italian critic wrote in 1934 that ‘the sonorous novelties freely developed by Respighi conserve the work’s inherent austerity and majesty’, and I cannot help but agree. 


Although scoring for a large orchestra, Respighi reins the instrumentation in appropriately for the Three Chorales, allowing the strings to dominate and let Bach’s gorgeous harmonic devices speak for themselves. Only in the Rachmaninov tone poems does Respighi indulge himself, and the audience, in some orchestral grandeur, featuring virtuosic string flourishes, deep brass and woodwind growls and percussive explosions. Rachmaninov himself was very pleased with this arrangement of his Études-Tableaux, and subsequently sent Respighi further piano manuscripts to orchestrate. 


This is a remarkable set of pieces and well worth listening to whether you are familiar with the original versions or not. The Royal Liêge Philharmonic and John Neschling have created a fantastic CD that is as enjoyable to listen to as it is important to showcase a series of sadly and undeservedly obscure pieces. 


The hybrid SACD (plays as CD quality through a standard CD player as well as SACD Surround through the correct equipment) is available from Naxos Direct or on all major streaming platforms.

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