RESPIGHI Vetrate di chiesa. Trittico botticelliano
The latest disc in John Neschling’s Respighi survey focuses on works in which his post-Romantic idiom and love of early music collide and fuse. The centrepiece is Il tramonto, his 1914 setting of Shelley for soprano or mezzo-soprano and strings. A study in decadent morbidity, its preoccupations are those of the Italian Symbolists, who took Shelley as a model. Tristan and Pelléas are usually cited as the primary influences, though the heated string-writing and extreme chromatic progressions are more reminiscent of Verklärte Nacht. Respighi’s often syllabic word-setting is usually described as Debussian, though the greater debt, frequently overlooked, is to Monteverdi, whose operatic monologues inform the subtly inflected vocal line that ceaselessly shifts between recitative and arioso.
Neschling’s soloist is Anna Caterina Antonacci, who brings to the work the declamatory power and textual understanding that make her such a compelling interpreter of Monteverdi himself. Her dark, slightly acrid tone suggests world-weariness at the outset and gives tremendous resonance to Shelley’s oblique narrative of a hermetic, unnamed aesthete, whose sudden death, after his first night of love, leaves his mistress Isabella to waste away in self-imposed solitude. The recording places Antonacci fractionally too far forwards, capturing an occasional pulse in the sound, but against that must be set the often extraordinary range of vocal colour she deploys throughout: the way, for instance, she suddenly bleaches her tone as she comments on Isabella’s deathly pallor is typical of the expressive detail and intelligence she brings to the performance as a whole. Neschling’s conducting, slow yet pressured, adds immeasurably to the oppressive atmosphere of it all. It’s the most searching version of the work that I know.
Its companion pieces are the Trittico botticelliano of 1927 and Vetrate di chiesa, completed a year earlier: both derive their thematic material in whole (Vetrate) or in part (Trittico) from Gregorian chant. Neschling can’t disguise Trittico botticelliano’s episodic nature, though he conducts it with considerable grace: the closing ‘Birth of Venus’ is exquisitely sensuous. Rimsky-Korsakov’s influence looms large – perhaps too large – over Vetrate, meanwhile. Sheherazade’s Young Prince and Princess are the model for the opening ‘Flight into Egypt’, while the tolling bells that usher in the climactic portrait of Gregory the Great (the putative creator of Gregorian chant itself) derive from Rimsky’s version of the Boris Godunov Coronation scene. The performance, however, is powerhouse stuff, thrillingly played by the fine Liège orchestra and sumptuously recorded. The whole disc is an excellent addition to a very fine series.