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Hyperion Records

CDA67930 - Respighi: Violin Sonatas
Woman with Blue Eyes (detail) (c1918) by Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920)
Musée d'Art moderne de la Ville de Paris / Giraudon / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: November 2011
Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, Germany
Produced by Ludger Böckenhoff
Engineered by Ludger Böckenhoff
Release date: September 2012
Total duration: 72 minutes 10 seconds

'What a strikingly inventive work the D minor Sonata is, particularly when played with such passion, purity of tone and poignancy as it is on this disc … a revelatory programme, performed with rare panache' (Gramophone)

'You're unlikely to find more sympathetic and committed performances than these: Tanja Becker-Bender's phrasing of Respighi's long lines and her range and subtlety of colour give both Sonatas every chance to make their mark. She is admirably partnered by Péter Nagy' (BBC Music Magazine)

'The young Ottorino Respighi, a contemporary of Puccini, looked north over the Alps for his musical influences, writing firmly in the Austro-German tradition and with an astonishingly assured Brahmsian sweep. At 19 he was already an accomplished violinist, giving the instrument long, singing lines in his Sonata in D minor, which Tanja Becker-Bender exploits to the full here. The 1917 B minor Sonata is an altogether more intense affair, with a complex harmonic structure beautifully delineated by Péter Nagy' (The Observer)

'The Five Pieces of 1906 … reveal a talent for light and shade that recalls the easygoing formality of Elgar's violin miniatures. None captures this better than the third of the set, a 'Madrigale', which inspires some of Tanja Becker-Bender's most charming playing … piano and violin are balanced well, with neither pushed forward at the expense of the other, and Nigel Simeone's booklet notes deliver detailed and insightful commentary on this rarely travelled path of the violin's repertoire' (International Record Review)

Violin Sonatas
Adagio  [6'56]
Aubade: Vivace  [3'20]
Moderato  [9'04]

Respighi’s orchestral music is loved for its lavish, operatic ‘fireworks’, its pomp and circumstance. This recording of his music for violin and piano demonstrates a more tender and intimate side to the composer, and also shows what a master he was of melody. Respighi had many influences from all over Europe and an enthusiasm for German music which perhaps explains the pleasing echoes of Brahms and Schumann among others. The sonatas, especially the later in B minor, are important works of nineteenth-century chamber music, and gems such as the Valse caressante and the Serenata are suffused with lyrical elegance which is perfectly carried off by the wonderful violinist Tanja Becker-Bender.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Ottorino Respighi (1879–1936) began his musical studies in his native city of Bologna when he was eight years old, taking lessons on the violin and piano from his father. At the start of the academic year 1892–3 he entered the Liceo musicale in Bologna, where he studied with Federico Sarti (1858–1921), a distinguished teacher and soloist as well as leader of the highly regarded Quartetto Bolognese. The records of the Liceo musicale show that Respighi was a student there for seven years (from 1892 to 1899) and that for the first four of these Sarti’s violin and viola class was his only study. He was clearly a gifted player: during his teens, Respighi was already sufficiently advanced on both the violin and viola to play in the orchestra of the Teatro Communale. In 1896 Respighi’s name appears for the first time in the class for counterpoint (composition), for which his teacher was Luigi Torchi (1858–1920). Torchi had remarkable musical interests for the time. In the 1890s his publications ranged from Riccardo Wagner: studio critico (Bologna, 1890) to a pioneering collection of Eleganti Canzoni ed Arie Italiane del Secolo XVII (Milan, 1895) that included music by Cavalli, Stradella, Marini, Legrenzi, Strozzi and others, all edited, according to the title page, ‘from old manuscripts or original editions, with basso continuo’. A year earlier Torchi had published an article on the instrumental accompaniment of early opera.

It is likely that Respighi’s later fascination with early music was nurtured by Torchi’s teaching. Nevertheless, one of the first large-scale works that he wrote while studying with Torchi is firmly rooted in the musical language of Respighi’s own time. According to the title page of the manuscript the Violin Sonata in D minor was completed in November 1897. From the brief slow introduction of the first movement (with allusions to Baroque dotted rhythms) and the ensuing Allegro, two things soon become apparent: the idiomatic and sonorous violin writing suggests a young composer who was as much at home composing for the instrument as he was playing it; and second, Respighi’s gift for sweeping melodies was of an almost Brahmsian ardour. The first idea of the main Allegro begins with a theme based around urgent arpeggios, but a soaring violin melody soon emerges and this provides the material for much of what follows. The influences in this movement are from the Austro-German tradition, and maybe, too, from the Franco-Belgian school with occasional hints of the harmonic mobility of César Franck. What is perhaps most remarkable is the extraordinary assurance that Respighi demonstrates in such an early work, generating strong, sweeping musical lines that reach a climax in the short coda.

The Adagio, in F major, opens gently, and soon a rising theme is heard—introduced by the piano, with the violin following closely—over pulsating triplet chords, and the dotted quaver–semiquaver figure with which this opens comes to dominate much of the music that follows. The lyrical eloquence of this movement draws its inspiration from instrumental precedents (again, there are echoes of Franck and Schumann among others).

The Allegretto finale contrasts a nervy first idea (with hints of Baroque ornamentation) with a rapturous tune in the major key that again suggests a young composer already starting to find a fluent and coherent voice of his own; while owing something (especially) to Brahms and his contemporaries, there is real individuality here too. The Sonata ends in a mood of quiet, slightly melancholy caprice, with Respighi resisting any temptation for a ‘big’ finish.

In 1900 Respighi joined the composition class run by Giuseppe Martucci, director of the Liceo musicale. A composer enthusiastically championed by Toscanini, he was also an important conductor who did much to introduce Wagner to Italian audiences, along with Brahms and Schumann, and who even conducted a concert of British music at Bologna’s Teatro Communale in 1898 (including Stanford’s Irish Symphony and Parry’s Symphonic Variations). Martucci was unusual among Italian composers of his generation, not only for his love of German music, but also for his reluctance to write an opera. It was the composer Gian Francesco Malipiero who later described Martucci’s Second Symphony as ‘the beginning of the rebirth of non-operatic Italian music’, and Martucci’s own preference for orchestral and chamber music certainly had an impact on Respighi—especially at the start of his career—though, unlike his teacher, Respighi went on to write a number of major stage works. At around the same time as his studies with Martucci, Respighi’s prowess as a violist led him to the discovery of a musical world far beyond Bologna. In 1900 he was offered a post in the orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, and during his time in Russia he met and studied with Rimsky-Korsakov—an encounter that was to have lasting consequences on Respighi, and especially on his orchestral music. What emerges most clearly from Respighi’s years of study is the range of taste and expertise of his teachers: a strong emphasis on instrumental music and an enthusiasm for German music that is perhaps at odds with preconceptions about Italian composers of the time.

Over the next few years Respighi wrote several significant chamber works—notably his Piano Quintet of 1902—but his output for violin and piano at this time was focused on shorter works, including a group of Five Pieces published in 1906 by Edition Mozarthaus in Vienna. It may seem curious that a largely unknown young Italian composer was appearing in print in the Austrian capital, but Mozarthaus had been acquired in 1903 by Carlo Schmidl, a noted musical lexicographer and publisher born in Trieste who established the firm of C Schmidl & Co there (shown as the co-publisher, along with Hofmeister of Leipzig, on the title page of Respighi’s pieces). Schmidl became a tireless proponent of Italian music both ancient and modern, from arias by Cavalli to Busoni’s opera Die Brautwahl. The Five Pieces by Respighi were probably not intended to be played as a set (each was published separately), but they form a very attractive sequence starting with a charming Romanza in which a long violin melody unwinds over repeating piano chords. The Aubade is a light-hearted piece with a subsidiary idea that seems to suggest the colouring of gypsy music. Apart from a short central section, the Madrigale is based on a theme that is never allowed to become predictable despite its apparent simplicity, since Respighi cleverly varies the lengths of phrases. The Berceuse presents a tender melody on muted violin (marked to be played dolcissimo) over an accompaniment that becomes more elaborate—decorated by trills—while remaining constant and calm. The longest of the five pieces is the Humoresque, which opens, after a few piano chords, with a flamboyant violin cadenza introducing some of the musical ideas that follow. A slower central section sees a move from G minor to G major, and the transformation of one of the ideas already heard into a more yearning theme—a process echoed just before a dash to the close. The first three pieces are dedicated to Umberto Supino, and the last two to Mario Corti. Both were fellow Sarti pupils, and both had participated in the first performance of Respighi’s most important chamber work to date—the Piano Quintet, given at the Liceo musicale on 8 June 1902 when Supino had played the second violin and Corti the viola (much later, Respighi dedicated his Poema autunnale for violin and orchestra to Corti).

At about the same time as writing these pieces, Respighi wrote another group of Six Pieces, from which two—the bewitching Valse caressante and the delightfully melodic Serenata—are included on this recording.

Composed in 1917, the Violin Sonata in B minor is contemporary with two of Respighi’s most popular orchestral works: La boutique fantasque, based on music by Rossini written for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and Fontane di Roma, the first piece in his great Roman trilogy. It was his first large-scale chamber work since an unpublished string quartet from 1909. The first movement begins with an arching violin theme over a brooding accompaniment that immediately announces the Sonata as a work of intensity and seriousness. The second theme, sweeter and simpler with a characteristic fall at the end of each phrase, has a hint of Brahms, but it is coloured with more complex harmonies. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the movement is the concentration with which Respighi develops his musical ideas: there is a strong sense of direction and purpose leading to the coda, where the second theme is presented in its most radiant form in a passage marked calmo e molto meno mosso, the violin marked to play con grande espressione e dolcezza. And yet even with this memorable tune Respighi never allows the music to become unduly sweet, and the last four bars, for piano only, have a darker quality.

A hint of the spacious Impressionism of Respighi’s orchestral writing can be heard in the wide-ranging piano theme that opens the Andante espressivo in E major, the emotional heart of the work. The violin then weaves a tranquil melody over a varied version of the piano theme, before the music becomes more animated (a section marked Appassionato, in triple time). The opening idea anchors much of what follows, working towards a massive climax before returning to the serenity of the opening.

The finale begins with a stern statement of the Passacaglia theme on which it is based, marked by powerful dotted rhythms. What follows is a brilliantly inventive exploration of the musical possibilities of both the form—a Baroque variation structure that had already inspired composers as different as Brahms (the finale of the Fourth Symphony) and Ravel (the slow movement of the Piano Trio)—and the theme itself. Respighi’s music here is entirely original (with a fondness for unusual phrase lengths—even in the theme, which is two bars longer than we might expect), but his model was certainly Brahms: the last movement of the Fourth Symphony has a very similar tempo marking (Brahms’s is Allegro energico e passionato), takes a comparably free and creative approach to writing variations on a ground bass, and ends with a faster, muscular coda that dramatically reaffirms the minor key.

The first performance of the B minor Sonata was given in Bologna on 3 March 1918, played by Respighi’s old teacher, Federico Sarti, with the composer himself at the piano. Respighi was delighted, writing to his old friend (a fellow-pupil in Sarti’s class) Arrigo Serato: ‘Inni! Non faccio per dire, ma abbiamo suonato bene. Io compreso!’ (‘Praise be! I shouldn’t say so, but we played it well. Me included!’). It was published by Ricordi the following year and soon enjoyed international success. Bronislaw Huberman, with pianist Paul Frankel, gave a recital in Chicago on 24 January 1923 which included an early American performance. It was described by Edward Moore in the Chicago Daily Tribune as being of interest for several reasons: ‘Quite outside of its own merits, which were many, this sonata served to indicate how the new generation of Italian composers is labouring to get away from the theory that Italian music means Italian opera … Respighi has written rather a good sonata … conceived along broad lines and on large ideas.’ The music of this Sonata is highly individual, demonstrating a more concentrated and intimate kind of instrumental mastery than does his more public, more spectacular orchestral music.

Nigel Simeone © 2012

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