Poor Riccardo Chailly. He made some spectacular recordings in the early decade of the digital age, including one of the best Rite of Springs ever committed to disc (the 1985 one in Cleveland, NOT the later remake in Lucerne). But Decca just can't seem to get the recordings right for him lately. I was extremely disappointed with his 2017 Stravinsky CD with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, not only for its lack of fresh inspiration, but also because of Decca's thick, murky recording. I was hoping things would improve in MiIan. They haven't.
Maybe it's not all Decca's fault. Maybe it's Chailly. Maybe he's actually going for this heavy, thick, dark, enormous orchestral sound these days. Because I hear it in this Respighi as well as in his earlier Stravinsky, which was with a different orchestra. Even so, Decca certainly does him no favors with their equally heavy, thick, dark walls of sound, lacking air and spaciousness. This is evident right from the opening measures of Pines, with its scoring for flutes, piccolos, triangles, bells, celesta, high violins and piano - there is no tingling sparkle.
As to the readings of the two main works, they are no more involving or exciting than John Wilson's are on Chandos. They are actually very similar in their heavy-handed control and lack of spontaneity and adrenaline. But Wilson scores in atmosphere (thanks to Chandos's superior SACD recording quality) where Chailly sounds too matter of fact. For example, the lovely trumpet solo in Pines near a Catacomb is a moment of sheer magic with Wilson, with his soloist ethereally distanced in the mists above and behind the orchestra (as indicated in the score). But Chailly's trumpeter is firmly seated in the usual position within the brass section and is therefore much too close (and actually sounds spotlit by the engineers!). Nor is there any attempt whatsoever at antiphonal spacing of the extra brass at the end. They're all blocked into a flat plane beside each other in the brass section. There simply is no excuse for this laziness. However, hats off to the fabulous clarinetist (Fabrizio Meloni) in the middle section, who correctly observes the score's dynamic indication that the opening phrase is piano and the phrase immediately following it is marked pianissimo. Breathtaking! But the finale (which incidentally begins much too loudly) utterly fails to accomplish much more than a boost in volume. There is no tension or powerful climactic release - failing, just as Wilson does, to raise the roof.
Fountains, which is the highlight of Wilson's disc, is even more ho-hum in Chailly's hands. The recording places everything too close and renders orchestral color all dark charcoal. There is an absence of light and shade contrast, and the acoustic lacks air and dimensionality.
The enticement of this disc lies with the lesser-known works. Aria for Strings is rather brooding in this dark soundworld, but Leggenda is a gorgeous work, beautifully played by violinist Francesco De Angelis in this version with string orchestra (originally for violin and piano). Di Sera (for 2 oboes and strings) is lighter, and heartfelt as played. Rounding out the extras is the Ancient Airs and Dances #3, also just for strings. It starts off well with a lovely Andantino, but doesn't take long before the heavy, thick lower strings weigh down the remaining movements unbearably, robbing this music of its inherent charm. The final movement in particular is downright vulgar with its violently gruff downbows from the basses and cellos, spotlit to the hilt by the Decca engineers. No one remembered, apparently, that this music is based on an ancient air for lute.
One final complaint about the programming on this CD. Why does it begin with Pines, with its triumphant, exultant finale then abruptly leading into the somber works which follow? And then the concert ends with the serene, calm chimes of midnight in the Fountains? This simply makes no sense whatsoever. With the two main works reversed, that finale of Pines might - might - have seemed just a little more jubilant than it is. And Fountains would have flowed beautifully (and logically) into the string works. I'm left scratching my head at it all.
I really question Chailly's decision to continue recording with Decca (and vice-versa) if this is the consistently disappointing resultant sound they achieve. This could have been a nice set.