11 April 2024

P.R. Jenkins

Spotlight Respighi: The Roman trilogy

“Karajan’s recording of the first two of Respighi’s Roman trilogy appeared in 1978, and though in recorded sound as well as in brilliance of performance it set new standards.”

Karajan was certainly a great conductor for Italian opera. But Italian orchestral music didn’t appear very often in his programmes – particularly if the music was written after 1850. An exception was the work of Ottorino Respighi. Respighi was born in 1879 and considerably younger than for example Karajan’s conducting idol Toscanini. For Karajan he was definitely a contemporary composer. Respighi’s best-known composition is a “Roman trilogy” of tone poems, “Fontane di Roma”, “Pini di Roma” and “Feste Romane”. Karajan conducted the “Fontane” in concert once in 1940, the “Pini” 14 times between 1941 and 1984. He recorded both works with the Berlin Philharmonic in the studio in 1978, the “Feste Romane” he never conducted. In 1958, Karajan recorded the “Pini” with the Philharmonia Orchestra for the first time and combined it on an album with pieces by Liszt and Berlioz.

In the third movement “I pini del Gianicolo” Respighi requests the recording of a nightingale played on a phonograph (a trick the gadget-lover Karajan must have been particularly fond of). It is considered the first use of a phonograph in orchestral music. Respighi’s instructions are very precise. He calls for recording R 6105 by Deutsche Grammophon “Song of a Nightingale, No. 2” recorded in 1910 (the first ever commercial recording of a bird) and an American “Brunswick Panatrope” gramophone. Karajan’s last performance of the “Pini” was during an Asian tour in 1984. The concert in Osaka on 18 October was filmed by Japanese television. Watch the film including the nightingale and Karajan laughing at the end.

Another piece by Respighi that Karajan conducted was the “Antiche danze ed arie Suite No. 3”, a transcription of baroque lute songs for string orchestra. It was recorded in 1969 in St Moritz. Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic spent part of the summer there for a mixture of holidays, recordings and workshops.

We’ve prepared playlists with Karajan conducting Respighi. Listen to them here.

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