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, where his soloist is 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. There simply is no excuse for this laziness. However, hats off to the fabulous clarinetist (Fabrizio Meloni) in the next 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 alas, the finale then 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 quality 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 lovingly played by violinist Francesco De Angelis. Di Sera (for 2 oboes and strings) is lighter, and is surely the most delightful work in this collection. Rounding out the extras is the Ancient Airs and Dances #3, also just for strings. It is well done, but again, the heavy, thick recording robs it of much of its inherent charm.
I really question Chailly's decision to continue recording with Decca if this is the consistently disappointing resultant sound they achieve. This could have been a nice set.