RESPIGHI Sinfonia Drammatica
Completed in June 1914, the Sinfonia drammatica is essentially an expression of Respighi’s anxieties about the impending First World War. At its premiere a year later, however, when Italy was moving towards entering the conflict on the allied side, the score was criticised as overly Germanic. Elsa Respighi’s subsequent failure to mention it in her biography of her husband, together with her statement that his first ‘characteristic’ work was The Fountains of Rome in 1916, has led to its frequent dismissal.
Listening to John Neschling’s recording, you can understand the the initial controversy. The influences are, in fact, as much French as German: Franck’s D minor Symphony is the structural model; Debussy lurks behind the chordal woodwind-writing. The main debt, however, is to Strauss’s Elektra, from which its five-note principal theme derives, and the turbulent mood of which it to some extent replicates.
‘Drammatica’ is an indication of tone rather than content, and this is a score that seems to be in constant, violent motion, though there are also flashes forwards to The Pines of Rome in the closing peroration, with its massive crescendo over a steady, repetitive pulse. Neschling admirably sustains the fever pitch throughout – nothing becomes overblown or unduly hysterical – and the playing is first-rate in its dark intensity and force.
The filler is the Belfagor overture, reworking material from an unsuccessful 1923 opera of the same name about the devil assuming human form in order to corrupt the virtuous heroine Candida. It’s an attractively scored piece of diablerie, superbly played.