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Respighi: Transcriptions of Bach & Rachmaninov - Neschling

Respighi: Transcriptions of Bach & Rachmaninov - Neschling

BIS  BIS 2350

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Ottorino Respighi:
Prelude & Fugue in D Major, P. 158 (After J.S. Bach's BWV 532)
Passacaglia in C Minor, P. 159 (After J.S. Bach's BWV 582)
3 Corali, P. 167
5 Etude-tableaux, P. 160

Orchestre Philharmonique de Liège
John Neschling (conductor)


The success of Ottorino Respighi’s ‘Roman Trilogy’ brought the composer international fame as an outstanding orchestrator. One side effect of this are the orchestral transcriptions gathered on this album: all made in 1929-30 and commissioned by eminent conductors such as Arturo Toscanini and Serge Koussevitzky for their American orchestras. Respighi’s wide-ranging musical tastes included an interest in early music which probably contributed to him taking on the task of transcribing organ works by Bach – or creating ‘orchestral interpretations’, as he himself called the results. Among the Bach works are the celebrated Passacaglia in C minor – which Stokowski had orchestrated just a few years earlier – as well as the Prelude and Fugue in D major. Both are given the full treatment by Respighi, with orchestral forces including strings, triple woodwind, bass clarinet, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani and piano four hands for the Prelude and Fugue. The score for the Passacaglia asks for even greater forces (including an organ); Respighi compared Bach’s original to ‘a cathedral built exclusively of sound’ – a description equally valid for his own arrangement. With the present album, l’Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège and John Neschling bring us the fifth instalment in a series that has been called ‘the finest-ever survey of the composer’s orchestral output undertaken by a single conductor’ (BBC Music Magazine).

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Review by Adrian Quanjer - February 15, 2021

The Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège (Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of Liège) was once considered to be the best regional orchestra in Belgium, and, as some believed, even better than the Belgian National Orchestra in Brussels. But that was more than 30 years ago and, in the meantime, on the Flemish side of the country as well as in the capital some good orchestras have come off age. Not having heard the OPRL in all these years I was anxious to learn how their quality curve had evolved.

I should have realized that BIS does not leave much to chance. Four more releases devoted to Respighi’s orchestral output preceded this one, and many to great acclaim. And listening to this new recording, I was pleased to hear that the orchestra, further polished by such eminent French conductors like Louis Langrée (now Cincinnati Symphony), and François-Xavier Roth (now LSO), and in this recording inspirationally led by John Neschling, had indeed not lost any of its former glory and regional fame, though it may now have to share it with other regional Belgian orchestras, notably The Antwerp Symphony Orchestra, recorded several times by BIS. A particularly interesting one is Stenhammar: Symphony No. 2 - Lindberg.

Transcriptions of Bach’s music are not new but are in a format as released here nonetheless exceptional. Senior music lovers among us will remember the famous Bach keyboard transcriptions for full orchestra signed by Leopold Stokowski. For many years, and even up till now, particularly appreciated in North America. But he wasn't unique. American appetites for such transcriptions, a novelty in the late 19 thirties and often ‘adapted to the taste of time’, have also been satisfied by Respighi at the request of Fritz Reiner (Cincinnati Symphony) and Arturo Toscanini (NY Phil), the result of which is now brought together in this release.

We may quarrel as to taste and authenticity of the Bach transcriptions, and not least the necessity to have all of it on record - I have no problem with either -, the fact remains that some of it is very well done. Particularly the three chorale transcriptions. And for some, a more pertinent reason may be: For the sake of completeness; having all that Respighi ever transcribed on record.

Such considerations do not apply to what is, no doubt, the main item on the menu, the Cinq Études-Tableaux, transcribed from Rachmaninoff’s Études-Tableaux Op. 33 & 39 for piano solo, commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky (Boston Symphony). Here, Rhespighi’s orchestral competence reaches its apogee, with accurate and true to type transcriptions, albeit greatly helped by Rachmaninoff’s willingness to share his thoughts behind the chosen parts, something he’s known to be reluctant to do. In doing so he went out of his way to provide Respighi with the comprehensive ‘colour scheme’ needed for each of the pieces.

These detailed descriptions were not only of crucial importance for the composer but also to giving clear indications for the interpreters. With this in mind and the proven skills of the orchestra, Neschling sets down such a compelling account of one of Ottorino Respighi’s lesser-known masterpieces that the total of his Respighi survey must now be regarded as a top choice for collectors.

Comparing different accounts one notes that timing and implicitly, the way how the material is handled by various conductors, is open for reflection. In de Hi-Res domain, tableau No. 3, Marcia funèbre, is taken slowly in Feltz’s dramatized view (8:14) compared to Neschling’s more energy driven take (6:13). A matter of choice and for the listener a matter of taste to consider.

In his excellent review, Graham Williams qualified the account of Gabriel Feltz as “splendid and characterful” and I agree with that. In the final analysis, Respighi fans will probably opt for Neschling as it is part of a complete survey. Both orchestras are of comparable standing and sonically BIS is as good as Dreyer Gaido, with the latter perhaps a tiny notch better.

If there were to be any criticism, it has nothing to do with the music. The as usual excellent and detailed liner notes suggest that the OPRL is the only professional formation in Wallonia. For all I know, there are two more: The Orchestre Royal de Chambre de Wallonie based at Mons, which is even two years older, and the Orchestre de l’Opéra Royal de Wallonie.

Blangy-le-Château, Normandy, France

Copyright © 2021 Adrian Quanjer and HRAudio.net

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