RESPIGHI Belkis, Queen of Sheba; Metamorphoseon
The enterprising Geoffrey Simon, fuelled with suggestions from the ever-searching Edward Johnson, has been illuminating a number of unexpected and attractive corners of the repertory. Last year, following up his success with long-buried Tchaikovsky, he turned to Respighi in a coupling of two works not recorded for years, Brazilian Impressions and Church Windows, the one in his exotic vein, the other exploiting his love of plainchant (ABRD1098, 8/84; CD CHAN8317, 8/84). This new Respighi coupling present a similar contrast, but the works themselves are not only rarer still, they strike me as even more impressive. The suite Belkis, Queen of Sheba is taken from a spectacular 80-minute ballet completed in 1931; the other is set of variations with a modal tinge which was written—like Stravinsky's Symphony of psalms—for the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, also in 1931.
Despite the severe and rather unappealing title, Metamorphoseon (note the difference from the title chosen by Richard Strauss for his late masterpiece) is the work which provides the new and important insight into Respighi. One might have predicted the finesse and colour of the orchestral writing, but hardly the cogency and the economy of the musical argument, in its way the satisfying balancing and contrasting of a wide variety of moods and expressions matches that of Elgar's Enigma Variations. Edward Johnson, in his sleeve-note, rightly suggests a parallel between the sonorous Lento espressivo of the fourth Modus or variation and ''Nimrod'', but I would press the kinship further than that, as well as drawing parallels with Britten's
The title is harly a draw with the ballet suite either. I for one would never have guessed that the name of the Queen of Sheba was Belkis. Respighi himself confected his suite from the full ballet score three years after the original presentation in Milan, with two lush and evocative slow movements, and two energetic dances, freely sewing different sections together. The published score has the two fast movements following the two slow ones, but rightly Simon has opted for alternating slow and fast. This is all rather like a cross between an updated Scheherazade and music for a Hollywood Biblical epic. With Respighi's mastery the resutl is sumptuously enjoyable, particularly in a performance so committed as this one from the Philharmonia. The playing in Metamorphoseon is even finer, and the Chandos recording is outstanding, even from a source that has produced so many demonstration records, brilliant yet warm and cleanly balanced.'