Tuesday, April 25, 2000

Latest disc by CSO relies on the music

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Name another classical work that calls for chirping birds.

        For years, Respighi's Pines of Rome and Fountains of Rome have been maligned as pops material. Nevertheless, Respighi's Roman snapshots (with a recorded nightingale in Pines) have received inspired recordings by many great orchestras.

        The latest is by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, in what is Jesus Lopez-Cobos' third Respighi recording for Telarc. The disc also includes the lesser-known set of variations, Metamorphoseon Modi XII.

        Mr. Lopez-Cobos relies on the loudness, brilliance and tunefulness of the music, as well as the CSO's spectacular brass and percussion sections, to carry the performances. The recording is atmospheric and the orchestra can play the notes. But the interpretive qualities that could make it distinctive — such as detailed expression and dynamic variety — are missing.

        Orchestral soloists make fine contributions in both tone poems. “Pines Near a Catacomb” is enhanced by a seamless, beautifully inflected trumpet solo by Philip Collins. Richard Hawley's warm clarinet adds to “The Pines of the Janiculum.”

        It isn't until Metamorphoseon Modi XXII that we have a sense of the richness of the CSO's strings. Metamorphoseon, a set of 12 variations on a chant-like theme, was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1929 for the orchestra's 50th anniversary.

        Unlike the Pines and Fountains, this is more of a dark, dramatic sound world, with Straussian textures. Most of the variations are brief, ranging from just 39 seconds to nearly seven minutes.

        It has been compared to Elgar's Enigma Variations, but Mr. Lopez-Cobos' conducting is unimaginative, and the playing is mundane. The best moments are in the cadenza-like solos by the CSO's principal players. A duo between clarinetist Mr. Hawley and oboist Richard Johnson is beautifully articulated and well-matched.

        In Telarc's hands, the master of sonorous spectacle, the “Direct Stream Digital” sound is dazzling.


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