With Ravel and Richard Strauss, Ottorino Respighi was the third great master of orchestral writing during the early 20th century. Working as a violinist in St Petersburg he learned orchestration from Rimsky-Korsakov, and although he wrote operas and songs it is for his orchestral works he is now remembered.

By far the best known of these (thanks to their promotion by Arturo Toscanini) is the Roman Trilogy: three sets of impressionistic tone poems. The trilogy comprises Roman Festivals (1916), Fountains of Rome (1924) and Pines of Rome (1928).

One of Respighi’s obsessions was the ancient world (specifically Ancient Italy) and many of his works use themes modelled on Gregorian chant. That strain even appears in the Trilogy, where modal figures sneak into the second movement of Pines of Rome (Pines near the Catacombs) and the Jubilee section of Roman Festivals. The vast instrumental forces depicting the Roman Consul’s triumphal march through the streets in Pines of the Appian Way (with its extraordinary drawn out crescendo) became the prototype for every sword and sandal Hollywood epic of the 1950s in scores by Miklós Rósza, Alfred Newman and others.

JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic already have form in Respighi, having successfully tackled other sonic dazzlers such as the Brazilian Impressions. The Roman Trilogy has been recorded frequently, and performances tend to fall into two categories: ones that go all out for spectacular sound and punch (Maazel), and ones that are varied atmospherically and emphasise musical qualities (Neschling). In an ideal performance there should be both.

A good place to start is the gentle opening of La Fontana di Valle Giulia all’Alba, the first of the Roman fountains. Falletta’s woodwind soloists not only play with exquisite tenderness, but are beautifully balanced with each other and against the quiet orchestral backdrop. When the second fountain bursts (literally) onto the scene, she maintains a light touch – after all it’s water, not New Year’s Eve fireworks. At the other end of the scale (Pines of the Appian Way), the Naxos engineers bring out the big guns, although I’ve heard bigger (Sinopoli with the New York Philharmonic). I am impressed by how subtly Falletta conveys the sinister, threatening atmosphere at the quiet opening of this procession of war.

There was a time when Naxos releases were not celebrated for their sound, but that has long passed. The sound on this disc is bright, vivid and well balanced.

Composer: Respighi
Composition: Feste Romane, Fontane di Roma, Pini di Roma
Performer: Buffalo Philahrmonic Orchestra, JoAnn Falletta
Catalogue Number: NAXOS 8574013

JoAnn Falletta’s Respighi album is Limelight‘s Recording of the Month in April. Read out interview with the conductor here.

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