Thursday, March 15, 2012

Metamorphoseon Not How I Remembered, But Still Decent Respighi

The Good: An intriguing Classical artist well performed
The Bad: Moments where the volume kicks down too low
The Basics: Despite having movements in the first two suites that go inaudible, the power and sophistication of Metamorphoseon makes this a disc worth picking up!

Some months back, I heard a piece on my local public radio station and I was so thrilled by it, that I have been in a search for it since. I could have sworn it was called the "Metamorphosea," but a little bit of research into it quickly lead me to Ottorino Respighi and the Metamorphoseon. As I tracked down an album that had the Metamorphoseon, I encountered an abysmal Respighi recording and one that was generally decent (reviewed here!), but still did not contain the suite I was looking for.

So, one might imagine my pleasure when I was at Barnes & Noble spending off my profits from a recent day's work and I discovered a recording that had the "Metamorphoseon Modi XII." I picked up on the spot. Having listened to it now several times, I find myself struggling to recall exactly what it was I heard on NPR that drove me to hunt this piece down. I recall the Metamorphoseon being a piece that evolved from one section of the orchestra to another, developing from quiet to forceful along the way and being striking for the contrasts and changes that occurred over the course of the song. And there is instrumental diversity in this presentation of Metamorphoseon, but it's somehow just not as striking as it originally was to me.

With three suites, comprised of twenty-one tracks, this Respighi album clocks in at 62:04 and showcases the talents of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Jesus Lopez-Cobos. The three suites, "Pines Of Rome," "Fountains Of Rome" and "Metamorphoseon Modi XII" are performed using a very rich sense of the orchestra, adeptly combining strings, woodwinds and an impressive brass section. Notably absent in the works in this recording is a noticeable percussion section. Instead, the other instruments are responsible with keeping their own time and the recording has a somewhat sleepy quality through much of it - at least at the beginning - as a result.

The album opens with the Pines Of Rome Suite. The first movement is "Pines Of The Villa Borghese," a two and a half minute trumpet and brass-driven fanfare that quickly establishes a sense of majesty and movement that heralds something great approaching. Unfortunately, the six-minute second movement is almost inaudible. I understand that the "Pines Near A Catacomb" is supposed to be quiet, flute and light-string driven, but for the first minute and a half coming off of the first movement, this movement is impossible to hear at moderate volume levels. And if one does not want to have to constantly adjust one's stereo to listen to the disc, this becomes a problem. In the middle of the piece, it rises up into a quietly listing tune that is basically the musical interpretation or equivalent of the wind. It is only in the latter half of the piece that a bassoon comes on, establishes a theme and the track builds into a majestic melody that implies age, grandeur and a sense of deep endurance.

"The Pines Of The Janiculum" follows and it is another quiet piece. The unfortunate aspect of either the piece or the recording is that for the first two minutes, the piece plays with quiet flutes and light woodwinds and strings barely eking out a sound. We hear music playing, but there is no coherent melody and the theme is dropped like breadcrumbs along a path. The piece becomes audible as a single woodwind begins to build up the orchestra, leading the string section - with an impressive harp - into a theme that is evocative of spires and mystery. This is a foggy, ethereal piece and by the time it becomes something, it is over.

That sense continues into "Pines Of The Appian Way," which again begins quiet and without any distinct melody. In the middle, though, the bold woodwinds and brass take over to present an adventurous theme that rises into an invigorating sense of two nobles meeting. There is a sense of majesty that comes as the piece climaxes, not of conflict but of grand presentation.

"The Fountains Of Rome" Suite begins with "Fountains Of Valle Giulia at Dawn," a four minute movement that sounds like the musical equivalent to a still pond with a gentle breeze blowing over it. As the piece progresses, mid-range woodwinds take over to provide a sense of movement and the general sense the piece is one of peace and careful exploration. None of the instruments push too hard, express too loudly and instead, the movement quietly establishes a serene location.

The "Triton Fountain At Morn" then begins as something of a striking contrast. Guided by a brass section, the piece breaks like the dawn with a stronger sense of movement and a strange undertone of menace. The brass and woodwinds chase each other around the scales, like a bigger fish chasing a smaller one. The small fish - in this case the lighter woodwinds - escapes by leaping out of the water in little arcs that keep it ahead of the jaws of its predator. Still, there is less a sense of menace than a frolicking chase and the movement is fun.

It also moves quite well into the sweeping crescendos of "Fountain Of Trevi At Mid-day," one of the few pieces on the album to employ drums. Tympanies pair with french horns to create a rousing sense of grandeur and movement. Everything parts for the arrival of something great in this piece and whatever it is strides in as the piece comes to an end.

Whatever it is that feels like it is arriving at the end of that movement, it certainly is not the meek thing that defines the "Villa Medici Fountain at Sunset," a movement that starts out timid, raises only up to present and then fades out completely. This is a mellow sunset piece and it is evocative of fading away with little to remember it by. This is a piece that goes gently into the good night with light strings and woodwinds drifting off.

And then came the "Metamorphoseon Modi XII," the piece I bought this disc for. Comprised of thirteen movements, the Metamorphoseon begins with a fairly deep theme being established with a brass and low woodwind section and then having other instrumental groups come in to transform the theme. It is, truly, a musical metamorphosis and in this recording it does utilize the entire orchestra adapting a basic theme for various instruments as it continues. The piece is about change and growth, so there are sudden bold downturns where flutes will be cut off by cellos and brass to present a musically abrupt event.

The piece flows wonderfully, though, and it is enough to recommend the disc for the twenty-three minutes. While the first two suites are erratic in their quality, Metamorphoseon is consistent in its sound level and it is in a constant state of movement. The music grows, it changes, whole sections of the orchestra rise up and fall out throughout the piece making for one of the most compelling and intriguing works of Classical music I've yet heard. As one who likes Mussorgsky's "Great Gates Of Kiev," Metamorphoseon sounds extraordinary and well-developed.

As a result, this disc is one that I am keeping in my permanent collection, at least until I find a better recording or one that pairs the Metamorphoseon with something more consistently audible. But for those - like me - who are just getting into Respighi, this is the best place to start I've yet found.

The best track is “Metamorphoseon” and the low point is the almost entirely inaudible "Pines of the Janiculum."

For other instrument-driven music reviews, please check out my takes on:
Appalachian Journey - Yo-Yo Ma
Mozart Musical Masterpieces - Classic Composers
Heroes Symphony - Philip Glass


For other music reviews, please visit my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the music reviews I have written!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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