Ottorino Respighi: Feste Romane

performed by the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal under Charles Dutoit


Four years after yesterday’s Pines, and more than a decade after Fountains, we have Festivals. As Wikipedia says:

Each of the four movements depict a scene of celebration from ancient or modern Rome. It is the longest and most demanding of the trilogy,[2] and thus it is less-often programmed than its companion pieces. Its premiere was performed by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra with conductor Arturo Toscanini in 1929.

The movements are as follows:

  1. Circenses
  2. Giubileo
  3. L’Ottobrata
  4. La Befana

The first movement opens dramatically, like what you’d expect to hear at the end of an opera when someone dies in a duel. Well, people will die, but they’re gladiators and martyrs. There are trumpets and their fanfares, and it sounds like violence and struggle. I think it’s easily audible how difficult this is for an orchestra. It’s quite intense, and there’s lots of rhythmic stuff throughout it.

Our fanfaring trumpet suddenly dies, and we get stomping, struggling brass pulses. The strings that return remind me of the catacombs from yesterday’s piece, mournful and dark, but constantly interrupted by the violent brass and percussion. There’s a game afoot, a chase, and it is ultimately to the death. That ending is something quite terrifying.

But then our second movement is satisfyingly different. It is the fiftieth-year jubilee. The strings sound haunting, far-off, mildly pained, and woodwinds enter over the ostinato in strings. It doesn’t sound much like a celebration yet, but the rhythms get more ornate as the piece builds. I enjoy the movement mostly, but I must say it sounds a bit like a mishmash of the finale of Pines and the previous movement of this work. There’s the idea of a march (of sorts), a throng of people coming into view, of increasing grandeur. It sounds nice, but it’s also a bit familiar, and not as effective as the Roman army in Pines. There are “church bells” that “ring in the background,” although in this recording, at least, they’re pretty foreground. Horn calls interrupt the church bells in what seems like a move to introduce the third movement, and it is.

Unlike the previous two Roman works, this one apparently focuses on the times of the year rather than the day, because now we are at the harvest in October, and the horn calls leftover from the previous movement seem quite celebratory. This is also the longest of all twelve movements that make up the three Roman works (the second longest being the previous movement). This is the first work that sounds festive in any manner most people would identify. After the horn solo, trumpets join in and it’s all quite happy. Not long after there’s another string ostinato, an echoey, far-off kind of thing that builds in an almost Alfred Hitchcock movie kind of way. But then… there is a large swathe of almost nothingness broken by a mandolin. I assume the effect was just to make it seem Italian… and one realizes that maybe this work has two slow movements. This is the quiet, peaceful nocturne-like movement, with flute and violin solos, the mandolin, and there are some intimate, almost chamber-like, very warm textures, but I don’t quite see what it has to do with the festivities surrounding a bountiful harvest. It sounds like winter is coming.

The final movement, ‘the epiphany’, is another of chaos and energy, strong rhythm and frenzy, a “clamour of Roman songs and dances, including a drunken reveler depicted by a solo tenor trombone.” I’m not sure what the ‘epiphany’ title has to do with the songs and drunken revelries, or what time of year this might represent, but the movement has its charms. Solo clarinet again, and it feels almost like a medley of folk tunes one right after the other, as moods and colors change before us, most quite circus-like, and the glissandos from our drunk trombone don’t help. I feel like it’s only in the last movement or so of this movement that it hits its stride, and I can breathe a sigh of relief that it will end on a strong note. It comes together, though, which is important because we’re not ending just this work, but the entire trilogy. I will say the ending extremely exciting, but perhaps still a little bit… unmoving.

The first of the three in the Roman Trilogy is the most mild-mannered of them all, or well-mannered, maybe, and the second I find to be the most moving and captivating. The third has some of the harmonic, rhythmic, and textural interest of something like, say, Bartok (I know, not), but it doesn’t move me. It’s interesting, fun, catchy, but it does not inspire or move me, and I feel is less coherent than either of the other two. While the ‘different times and places in the same day’ idea may seem a little bit trite, it’s effective as a program for a short work with lots of impact, and I find that most lacking in this final installment of the trilogy. I’d still take the chance to hear it in the concert hall, but I wouldn’t choose it over either of the other two.

In any case, that’s the end of our Roman Trilogy from Ottorino Respighi. I haven’t listened to any other recordings because, frankly, they don’t matter. It’s these recordings of these works that I have become rather attached to, and it’s likely I would be thrown off or annoyed by things that are not wrong but different. Preferences.

In any case, we are (spoiler alert) nearing the end of our first chronological traversal of symphonic poems. With this work, we’re already past 1928, so there’s not a ton left for us this time around. I know. I know I didn’t get everything. Can anyone? But we’ll eventually get around to more. Stay tuned for a very busy week next week! I’m excited about it, you should be too!

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