RESPIGHI Metamorphosen. Belkis
Composers can be wayward judges of their own work. Respighi, it would seem, disliked his Metamorphoseon, commissioned in 1930 by Serge Koussevitzky as one of a number of works (the list included Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms) to mark the Boston Symphony’s 50th anniversary. Though the premiere was a success, Respighi deemed its composition ‘forced’, and discouraged further performances – a curious response, since it’s arguably the most striking piece in John Neschling’s latest album of his music.
In form, it’s an extended set of variations on a slowly unwinding theme, the contours of which suggest both Gregorian chant and Slavonic folksong, a reflection perhaps of both Respighi’s interest in early music and his Russian training. The style is post-Romantic, but there’s an almost Baroque profusion of inspiration in its restlessly shifting orchestral patterns. The scoring has all Respighi’s usual glamour but is thicker and darker in colour than much of his work, which may have been a source of his dissatisfaction. It’s dazzlingly done here, with plenty of grace and panache, by Neschling and his Belgian orchestra.
Its companion pieces find Respighi in decadent mode. The Straussian symphonic poem Ballata degli gnomidi found favour with Toscanini in its day (1920), though its subject – the slaughter of a gnome by females of his tribe during an arcane, sadomasochistic ritual – is too misogynistic for comfort. Belkis, regina di Saba was a blockbusting ballet, choreographed by Léonide Massine for La Scala in 1932, and clearly designed to cater for every sexual taste with its big solos depicting the Queen of Sheba’s erotic awakening and corps de ballet of ‘young athletes, tanned and almost naked’. It caused a stir at last year’s Proms in a full-on performance by the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic under Sascha Goetzel. Neschling is altogether more restrained, but the work’s heady atmosphere still sends you reeling.