Top Ear

Reiner’s Fascinating Respighi and Debussy

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Jeremy Lee writes

Ah, Respighi’s Pines of Rome! It was one of the first works I ever came across, having played the last movement in an arrangement for wind band.  I remember vividly how I was fascinated by the then-complex rhythms (which to me is nothing now given that I play stuff like Messiaen), the hypnotizing cor anglais solo which in the arrangement was taken up by the saxophone, the tense anticipation presented by rumbling tubas and bass drums at the start, and so gradually and inexorably leading to the pealing trumpets and gongs at the near-end, announcing the arrival of a most powerful Roman army marching into the Capitol.  It was not a few years later, however, when I borrowed my first two recordings of the work in the library:  Lopez-Cobos/Cincinatti SO and Maazel/Cleveland.  The former was a good but not magnificent reading and lacked sheer power in many places, while the latter was a much more powerful and majestic approach to the work.  Now though, I have obtained Reiner’s legendary version with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, coupled with Fountains of Rome and Debussy’s La Mer, and I shan’t beat around the bush:  it’s the most magnificent sound spectacular I have ever heard.

Reiner was said to be a cold and spicy conductor, and his cold and spicy approach to these works may strike some as too unemotional, but the color, concentration, involvement and precision overshadows that entirely and leaves even the most seasoned listener awestruck.  Listen to how beautifully he balances the nocturnal third movement’s clarinet solo and strings!  Listen to how effortlessly and inevitably the last movement’s large crescendo is done!  Some moments strike me as particularly impressive:  the extreme precision and crispness of the snare drum and muted trumpets (the double-tonguing!), how the trombones play their counter-melody in the climax of the second movement is a model of power and dignity, while retaining the magical orchestral balance.  Also, the tintinnabulations in the last few pages of the work are fascinatingly prominent and rounds off the work to a towering conclusion.  In sum:  a truly epic and breathtaking performance.

The couplings are equally magnificent.  La Mer (my first hearing)’s colorful effects were done spectacularly—listen to how the almost unhinged brass wage a polyrhythmic war with the timpani in the last few bars of the last movement!—and Fountains of Rome’s middle movements were absolutely groundbreaking.  Sonically, this was recorded in 1959, and inevitably there is a small amount of tape hiss that may be slightly annoying at first, but I guarantee you that you would get used to it in no time.  At any rate, the sound quality that you can hear under the hiss is immeasurably spectacular, and the hiss truly is a small price to pay for such a legendary performance.  Audiophiles may opt for the SACD version which is reported to have even less tape hiss without reducing the fidelity of the original sound (though I have never heard it).  Excellent booklet notes with interesting essays on the recording process only enhance the enjoyment of owning such a great recording.  Superb.


  • Label:  RCA Living Stereo 09026-68079-2
  • Sonics:  ADD Stereo
  • Total playing time:  62:07
  • Year recorded:  1959-1960

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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