Prokofiev and Respighi, moreover, sought to develop a populist musical style in many of their compositions and in this vein produced works of enduring appeal, two examples of which are offered on this recording.
Respighi’s Pines of Rome [Pini di Roma], which was completed in 1924, is perhaps the best known and most often performed of the composer’s works. Respighi conceived the piece as forming a trilogy together with his two other Rome-inspired orchestral compositions, Fountains of Rome and Roman Festivals. All three vividly evoke various aspects of Respighi’s beloved city; each of the four movements of Pines of Rome aurally depicts a different Roman locale, from the yells of children at the Villa Borghese to the somber sounds of the Roman catacombs to the triumphant march of the Roman army along the Appian Way. Much of the work’s popularity can be attributed to the fact that it is a pure orchestral showpiece, requiring a large orchestra (complete with recorded bird song at the conclusion of the third movement). The sheer orchestral force and vivid imagery of Respighi’s score (not to mention its unabashed celebration of Rome) even attracted the admiration of Mussolini.
Prokofiev finished the first version of his ballet Romeo and Juliet in 1936—a fateful year in many respects: in January, the composer made a permanent return to Soviet Russia just as the official denunciation of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth was published in Soviet newspapers, marking the beginning of an exceptionally oppressive period for Soviet composers. Prokofiev quickly learned much of the vagaries of the new Soviet system when he could not secure performances of Romeo and Juliet in Moscow or Leningrad (the official reason being that the music was too complex for the dancers to deal with.) The always-enterprising Prokofiev did not let this hurdle stand in his way and extracted two suites of music from the ballet score, both of which are featured in this recording (unfortunately, the fourth and sixth numbers of second suite are not included). Although the ballet version did finally receive its premiere in Brno in 1938, it was not performed in the USSR until 1940, only after Prokofiev had consented to significant revisions. Romeo and Juliet is one of the culminating works of Prokofiev’s efforts during the 1930s to develop a simpler and more direct musical language without compromising the quality of his compositions. In this respect, the ballet and the suites extracted from it are a stunning success, and today they rank among the composer’s most beloved works.
The performances on this disc—both reissues—date from the earlier days of Riccardo Muti’s tenure with The Philadelphia Orchestra (the Prokofiev was recorded in 1981 and the Respighi in 1984). As might be expected from such a venerable orchestra and director, the playing is first-rate. Muti’s interpretation, however, is not for the faint of heart: He draws massive sound from the orchestra, and both pieces are marked with dramatic dynamic contrasts. While always exciting, some may find Muti’s approach to these pieces (most notably in the Prokofiev) rather extroverted for their tastes. The recording is crystal-clear and generous on the bass end, but at times suffers from balance problems, with some of the brass sounding particularly distant while others are quite up-close and live. These, however, are minor detractions, and considering this is another release from EMI’s inexpensive “encore” label, the disc is a great option for those wanting to add these two classic works to their CD collection.
Kevin Michael Bartig
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill