I've been collecting this BIS series of Respighi recordings from John Neschling since the first release appeared in 2010. There has been much to enjoy, despite a bit of the routine creeping into some of the readings along the way. I found the series improved as it progressed, especially when venturing into less frequently recorded pieces in the later releases (2015-2017). The sense of routine was more notable in the earlier volumes which included the Roman Trilogy, La Boutique Fantasque, 3 Botticelli Pictures, etc. However the performances grew more engaging with the 2015 disc, which included Metamorphoseon, Ballad of the Gomes and Belkis Suite, and in the 2016 Sinfonia Drammatica. Most impressive of all came in 2017 with a wonderful reading of Church Windows. This is a difficult piece to bring off and admittedly Neschling is helped enormously by the wide-ranging, effortlessly expansive and luminous recorded sound from BIS. Nonetheless, this is surely the most convincing recording of the piece I've heard.
Finally in 2023, after a gap of several years (one wonders why such a delay) comes one more installment which should arguably be the best of the lot - the delightful Three Ancient Airs and Dances Suites and The Birds. These lighthearted works should be fairly easy to bring to life, but I hear a return to the overly refined blandness of Neschling's earlier volumes - but curiously even more under-characterized here. The sound is fine and the orchestral playing is cultivated. But the entire affair is missing sparkle and life. Tempos seem a bit sluggish throughout and the orchestra sounds like they'd rather be playing something else. I found myself losing interest and growing restless as I trudged through it.
A long-winded, turgid review of this release appears on Amazon which I found amusing, especially after listening to this recording. The writer complains that "old people" don't like new recordings because they'll always feel their old war-horse favorites are the best and can never be matched. (Sigh...) In the case of Ancient Airs and Dances, he cites specifically Dorati (1958 Mercury) and Ozawa (1979 DG). Funny he mentions those two, as I highly admire both of those recordings myself! They are simply among the best recorded versions and thus one can't help but compare new ones to them. In supporting his personal preference for the new one from Neschling, Mr. Amazon man criticizes us older listeners for having gotten used to the old multi-mic'd recorded sound and therefore can't adjust to the more natural balance of modern recordings such as this one from BIS. Well, that isn't even a fact-based argument. Mercury's reputation, indeed its raison d-etre, was based upon its use of minimal microphones (usually only 2, sometimes 3), with no spot-mics or multi-channel manipulation in the control room whatsoever. True, DG utilized multi-mic techniques, however Boston's Symphony Hall ensured a rich, atmospheric acoustic and blooming orchestral colors offset the judicious spotlighting.
However, what both of these time-honored, classic recordings do provide is a stunning orchestral presence, with a close, upfront perspective which brings the music right into the listening room. But it's not due to multi-miking, but the proximity of the mics to the players. In comparison, BIS transports the listener back towards the rear of the hall - a startling difference in where one is seated in the enormity of the recorded space. However, once the ear adjusts (and giving the BIS a healthy increase in volume to match the others), the differences are clearly identified as being the result of orchestral execution. Neschling prefers on-the-string bowing - languid legatos and a smoother bowing style than do Dorati and Ozawa. The Philharmonia Hungarica and Boston Symphony strings work harder at it - with crisper articulation and decidedly more variety of sound. Neschling's Royal de Liege strings tend to sound a bit one-dimensional - a dense wall of sound which rarely varies. Even the musical phrasing is rather superficial. This is what I hear as a lack of characterization in his readings. Yes, the recorded sound plays a part, and BIS doesn't help in this regard. However, it's not just about the more "natural" recording, it's about articulation. It's also about interpretation - the imagination and creativity to draw inspired music-making from an orchestra.
(I must interject here that Mercury's 2004 SACD remastering of the Dorati is a vast improvement over the original CD release. It is warmer and more refined, and frankly, less crude. My comments regarding this recording are based entirely on the SACD.)
That being said, these readings from Neschling are well-played and pleasant - and that's about as far I'll go with praise. They're not crisply alert, not insightful or in any way distinctive, and not even all that delightful. And coming after Dorati and Ozawa, they frankly sound a little bland. Both venerable conductors are more extrovert in this music - displaying an individuality which is largely missing in many of today's faceless orchestral recordings. It is becoming nearly impossible to identify an orchestra any more just by listening to them on record. They are all tending to sound the same - refined, anonymous, meticulously accomplished and largely dispassionate. (Though I can hardly blame the orchestras themselves; this is a product of today's crop of conductors - with a few exceptions.) There is no denying the Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liege dutifully conforms to the current trend. And with sumptuous recorded sound from BIS, in its way this release is satisfying. And it certainly fits in well with the rest of Neschling's cycle.
While I lament the current rarity of truly great conductors which were so abundant in the past, I don't dwell on it. Nor have I ever been one to long for the "good old days" of early stereo (or god forbid, mono) recordings. I still have excellent hearing and have assembled an exceptional stereo system which can reproduce music with realism in the home environment. I passionately welcome new recordings and immerse myself in the wonders of modern recorded sound.
A case in point is my personal favorite recording of these Respighi works - a modern recording which sweeps the board. There is none better from any era than the very impressive 2015 SACD from the CPO label with Henry Raudales conducting the Munich Radio Symphony Orchestra (recorded in 2009). It is instantly fresher and more engaging than Neschling's, with crisper articulation and recorded sound which is just as refined as the BIS but with more life, color and sparkle to it. In Raudales's hands, this music positively dances (as surely it should; these are airs and dances after all). His direction is a master class in how to infuse these little pieces with enchantment. The variety of dynamics and tempos, along with mercurial phrasing and endless imaginative touches combine to make a thoroughly involving experience. And there is something else too which seems to elude other conductors - charm. This music is so positively delightful I found myself smiling all through it. I was planning on just spot-checking this collection for comparisons' sake but ended up listening to it in its entirety.
The differences between the two are even more strikingly illustrated in The Birds, where Raudales's descriptive characterization is so vivid, it conjures each bird to mind in a way Neschling barely hints at. CPO doesn't produce many SACDs, but this one is exceptional. I enjoyed it very much - much more than Neschling's.