Respighi The Birds & Ancient Dances and Airs BIS

Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936)
Gli uccelli (“The Birds”), P 154 (1928)
Antiche danze ed arie: Suite No. 1, P 109 (1917)
Antiche danze ed arie: Suite No. 2, P 138 (1923)
Antiche danze ed arie: Suite No. 3, P 172 (1931)
Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège/John Neschling
rec. 2021, Salle Philharmonique, Liège, Belgium
BIS BIS-2540 SACD [76]

This latest Respighi recording from John Neschling and the Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège (OPRL) is an occasion for tremendous enjoyment, but also sadness.  Sadness, because I personally have thoroughly enjoyed Neshling’s Respighi series, going all the way back to the 2010 release of his Roman Trilogy with the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra (BISSACD1720, still available, review).  With this release, that series now contains seven albums, all from BIS Records on surround-sound SACDs, giving us one of the most comprehensive sets of Respighi’s music ever put on disk, certainly in surround sound.  But now it is over, and there will apparently be no more Respighi disks from Neschling according to the BIS website.

Ancient Dances and Airs, a set of three individually written suites by Respighi, has several recordings already in the catalogue, a few of which are actually quite good, for their time, anyway.  There are only two disks in the current catalogue, however, that I was able to locate with precisely the same program as offered on this SACD, where The Birds is included.  There are also a few multi-disk anthology sets with this music, but for this review, we will stick with single-disk equivalents of this Neschling-OPRL album.

There are, of course, the classic Antal Doráti recordings, combined on a single disk from the Alto label (ALC1222, still available).  It contains Doráti’s 1959 recording of The Birds with the London Symphony Orchestra and his 1960 recording of Ancient Dances and Airs with the Philharmonia Hungarica, both of which were originally released separately on the Mercury label.

From 2016, we also have Henry Raudales and the Munchner Rundfunkorchester on a CPO SACD (777233-2, still available, review), the first surround sound recording of this music that I am aware of.  One thing worth mentioning right away is that, where the Doráti album takes a combined total of 78:47, the Raudales album takes 64:44 with exactly the same music.  Yes, really.  And there aren’t any optional repeats that can be left out to explain the difference either.  I have only heard short segments of the Raudales album, but every single one of them sounded like a 33 RPM vinyl record being played on the 45 RPM setting.  The orchestra was clearly doing everything they could simply to keep up, let alone infuse their performance with appropriate stylistic considerations, such as plenty of spring in the dance movements, or pointing the dotted rhythms to maximize clarity.  So, sadly enough, the Raudales album essentially eliminates itself from serious consideration before we even press the Play button.

The Doráti recordings are probably the most familiar to fans of Ancient Dances and Airs and The Birds, so we will use that as a comparative reference vis a vis the Neschling-OPRL recording.  Both albums program The Birds first, which is probably wise since the combined Ancient Dances and Airs are notably more substantive.

The biggest difference right away is the quality of sound engineering.  I recently saw another website’s review of a re-issue of the Doráti recording of Ancient Dances and Airs by itself, where the author said it was “demonstration quality”.  I can only scratch my head, wondering if the reviewer was really that ignorant of more modern recordings that would easily outshine the sound quality of anything recorded in the 50s or 60s.

And let me please clarify, I’m not trying to disparage the Doráti recording, which, for its time, was truly a remarkable achievement.  But the simple fact is that a 50s or 60s recording is not going to have the same audio quality as a well-recorded modern album from the present day, so describing a 50s or 60s recording as “demonstration quality” makes no sense.

On the Neschling album, the sound from BIS is virtually ideal.  The sound has a completely natural-sounding front-to-back transparency, where everything is audible from the softest pianissimo to the loudest fortissimo, all in complete, unstrained clarity.  The perspective seems to be from the middle of the front seating section, with an ideal spread from side-to-side and from front-to-back.  We are close enough to hear an amazing amount of detail, but also distanced just enough to get sufficient amounts of the hall’s ambience and bloom for the louder passages to have the most effective impact, which is even better when listening to the surround layer.  It’s hard to imagine the audio being much better than this.  For my own listening, I used a physical SACD played on a surround sound system, but stereo listeners will also undoubtedly notice a huge improvement over the sound quality of older recordings.

The booklet notes, by Jean-Pascal Vachon, provide a solid historical background for all four suites, as well as a nicely detailed description of the individual movements and some of the background that went into their compositional process.

The OPRL gives us a performance that is spotless as far as I can hear, with an overall sonority that is worthy of a first-class orchestra.  I’m an ex-professional clarinet player myself, so I tend particularly to notice an orchestra’s woodwinds, and it was quite enjoyable to hear the way OPRL’s woodwinds are able to combine their distinctive individual sounds together into a single tone quality that has plenty of roundness and overall beauty.  They also have a terrific sense of ensemble rhythm, playing the most difficult and complex passages flawlessly, where their parts all line up with each other, almost as if it’s just one person playing all the instruments at once.  To be honest, they are slightly but noticeably better in this regard than the 1960 Philharmonia Hungarica.

The brass and strings are equally outstanding, giving us a performance that is gorgeously refined, but also with all departments bringing a level of excitement and vitality that makes it impossible for me to turn it off, even if I originally planned to only listen to 1-2 tracks.  Next thing I know, I’ve listened to all the tracks (again) and didn’t even notice the time passing.  In a nod to HIP enthusiasts, since the Ancient Dances and Airs are based on Renaissance-era lute music, Neschling has the OPRL strings using no vibrato (except in The Birds), but as full-bodied as their sound is, this is noticeable only occasionally.  In the strings-only Suite No. 3, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if a few string players here and there had loose hairs hanging off their bows by the end, with this much energy and aggressiveness being poured into their performance.

Then there’s John Neschling.  Since we were previously talking about timings, his version comes to a total of 75:30, just a tad brisker than Doráti, but not overly so.  One thing a lot of people might not realize is that many conductors completely ignore some of Respighi’s tempo indications.  Just for one example, Seiji Ozawa, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon 4198682, still available), takes the last movement of Suite No. 2 (“Bergamasca”) quite a bit slower than Respighi’s indicated speed in the score of 116 beats per minute – and Doráti actually takes it even slower than Ozawa.

That’s not necessarily a “criminal” offense, so long as the performance still comes across effectively, but it’s probably worth pointing out that Neschling is more consistent throughout all the various movements at taking Respighi’s indicated tempi.  (Some veteran listeners might therefore say Neschling’s Bergamasca sounds “rushed”, since they are used to hearing it below tempo.)

Admittedly, merely following tempo markings doesn’t automatically prove that Neschling does a better job, but it does at least start us from a better point of departure.  And listening all the way through, time and time again, I never once find myself thinking that anything sounds less than “right”.  Bergamasca, in particular, has a joyful, springy, energetic dancing quality to it that slower recordings have a difficult time matching.  And the OPRL is fully up to the quicker tempo, rolling up their sleeves and diving in with plenty of enthusiastic aplomb.

In more instances than I can count on this Neschling recording, I find myself sitting up straight, having heard him do something that brings the music to life in a way that I had not heard before on other recordings.  He knows how to “read between the lines” and to bring out that extra “something” that separates the great conductors from the mere kapellmeisters.  (This is the same reason why Doráti was justifiably so loved in his day.)  Throughout The Birds, the dove, the hen, the nightingale, and the cuckoo are each brought to musical life with nicely imaginative characterizations under Neschling’s leadership.

There are also innumerable details of the orchestral score that I can now hear, but were never audible in older recordings.  Part of this is due to the excellent recording, as I mentioned earlier, but part of it is also up to the conductor to balance all the various parts in rehearsal, and from what I can hear, Neschling has done a superb job of this.  Dynamic markings are carefully terraced throughout, as marked in the score.  With Respighi’s ingenuity for how to use an orchestra, this gives numerous passages a sense of lengthy direction and structure as Respighi either build us up to various points or similarly brings us back down from those points.

So the performance on this album is excellent enough that it can very successfully stand right alongside the Doráti recording or anybody else that I have heard, but when the sound quality is factored in, then this new Neschling recording, for me at the least, now becomes my go-to version of Ancient Dances and Airs and The Birds.

It’ll be mighty tough for anybody else to beat, and I feel quite safe saying that much, at least.  Respighi would surely have been very pleased with this album.  Bravo to BIS Records, John Neschling, and the Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège on a job well done.

David Phipps

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