Unfortunately, though highly regarded, Respighi is a composer who is today remembered for very little of his comparatively large output. In keeping with that tradition, this disc features two of his most representative and often-heard works: the Pines of Rome and the Fountains of Rome. Fortunately, though, the album is rounded out by a gorgeous performance of the beautiful (and basically unknown) Metamorphoseon Modi XII. With the help of the excellent rendition featured here, one can only hope that the Metamorphoseon will eventually become more standard fare, both in concert and on record.
The two famous tone poems that form the foundation of the disc are also given solid, energized accounts. The exuberant, breakneck tempo that López-Cobos commands in the first movement of the Pines of Rome is breathtaking. This ebullience is skillfully transformed into a romantically soulful and deeply felt double bass passage at the beginning of the second movement. Played with great beauty and elegance, the clear sound quality from Telarc makes all the difference in actually hearing these low frequencies without distortion. The off-stage trumpet solo later in the movement is also well-played, although here the sound leaves something more to be desired: the significant echo seems to give one more the sense of being present in a cathedral rather than something that sounds off in the distance. The clarinet and oboe soloists give fine performances throughout the exposed third movement, bringing a combination of lyrical phrasing and individual sounds that complement each other nicely. Particularly striking here, though, is López-Cobos' fine attention to balance: he unearths some of the oft-covered cello writing that is usually buried by the orchestra in some of the louder sections. And, although the third movement is well-done overall, it is somewhat disappointing that the sense of ensemble is not always the best and that the long, wistful melodies don't soar with more passion. The entrance of the bird whistling between the third and fourth movement is also a bit abrupt; there is no real fade in and the atmosphere suffers as a result. A hauntingly convincing English horn solo and sufficiently coarse playing from the off-stage brass bring the work to an exciting close.
The performance of the Fountains is equally good in most respects, although the piece has never enjoyed the same popular success as the Pines. The brass play with the same tough, coarse sound as in Pines and the music is paced in a way that, like Pines, commands attention. The violin solos are beautifully stylistic and bring a glowing sense of Italian warmth and sunshine.
As mentioned above, though, certainly the most interesting work on this disc is the Metamorphoseon Modi XII (1930). Written to fulfill a commission by Sergey Koussevitzky in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (along with Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms and Prokofiev's Symphony No. 4), the piece showcases each orchestral section in a manner somewhat reminiscent of the popular trend of the day (and predates the similarly flashy Bartók Concerto for Orchestra, written for the same orchestra and conductor, by some 13 years). The members of the Cincinnati Symphony rise to the challenge well, especially the low woodwinds and string sections, from which López-Cobos is able to draw out long, lush, sumptuous tones during the frequently brooding atmosphere. Overall, the vivid colorings of the work are a good match for his delicate ear and this recording serves as a great introduction to the work. The Metamorphoseon makes the disc a must-have; the good renditions of Pines and Fountains will likewise make good interpretive and sonic additions to any record collection.