sun 05/07/2020

Ottorino Respighi, the forgotten composer | reviews, news & interviews

Ottorino Respighi, the forgotten composer

Ottorino Respighi, the forgotten composer

Why the Italian composer's reputation needs rescuing

Ottorino Respighi: more than picturesque
The latest subject in the BBC Four series of composer portraits by Christopher Nupen is Ottorino Respighi. One of the most unfairly neglected major composers of the first half of the 20th century, his reputation has suffered less from not being considered at all, but for having been confined to his trilogy of tone poems that evoke respectively the Fountains, the Pines and the Traditional Festivals of Rome. Nupen's film, made in 1982, puts a welcome case for his more challenging but less well-known work.

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Not sure about the 'unjustly neglected' tag. The Roman trilogy is his masterpiece, from what I've heard, and long ago folk woke up to the 'more than picture postcards' line (try Pappano's recent recording for sheer refinement). I'll admit I don't know the operas, but the other orchestral works have mostly had respectable outings on CD. Nupen's film is ancient history. I haven't seen this, or the Sibelius, but I do know that the Tchaikovsky double is a stinker, performances by Ashkenazy honourably excepted. A shame because, yes, we do need serious documentaries on music. But his always struck me as a bit too self-serving. Just a point of view, mind.

And the Nupen film has glaring errors. The Botticelli Pictures were not written in 1917. Its a nice film and indeed at the time, this was the first outing for the Doric Quartet in many years. Tried to contact Nupen about the couple of facts that are wrong in the film...alas no reply!

Shostakovich was not only a communist, he was "good communist" -- and that according to his best friends. A few spats with the Committee didn't mean he wasn't a dedicated communist if short of being devout. I have no idea why anyone would try to find sarcasm in his work where it isn't -- and miss the sarcasm where it is (having nothing to do with the party). It was Prokoffiev who was politically indifferent -- and preferred champaigne and pate to borsch. Prokoffiev returned to Russia because he wasn't much liked in America. Cindarella was written in Russia, FHS. Shostakovich stayed in Russia because he was a good communist --the best composer the communists produced. Not to miss the point, however: Resphigi was a fine musical historian and knew just what to do with antiquities for the 20th century, much like Orf. But the Shosh vs Prok argument is so fugging razzio-politico -- and limping lame. Did they know what Stalin was up to? It only dawned on the west very slowly and the figures still aren't in; all we know is that Stalin lost eventually.

Shostakovich didn't actually join the communist party until 1960, I think - without double-checking - I'm right in saying, and felt suicidal about having done it (the Eighth Quartet was his own requiem, or so he claimed at one point). Prokofiev was far from apolitical and wanted to serve the cause of music for all - it's a gross oversimplification to say that he returned to the Soviet Union full-time in 1936 because 'he wasn't much liked in America'. He thought he could continue the lifestyle of six months' touring in the west - where he was still very much in demand as pianist and conductor of his own works - and the rest composing in Russia, where he was given the time and money he'd never had for that in America and France.

But this is a complex issue and not discussable in the comments. What I will say is three cheers for Respighi's fecundity, which shows as richer over time.

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