Respighi Songs: Ian Bostridge and Saskia Giorgini

In 1913, Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936) became professor of composition at the Liceo Musicale di S Cecilia in Rome, a post he held for over a decade.  One of his students was Elsa Olivieri Sangiacomo, a talented composer and singer.  In January 1919 teacher and pupil married and during their relatively brief married life, Elsa replaced his close friend, the singer Chiarina Fino-Savio, as the chief interpreter of his songs; together they gave over 300 recitals.  Elsa survived her husband by almost 60 years and became his principal biographer and tireless advocate. 

Despite her life-long efforts, today Respighi is still probably best known for his colourful orchestral tone poems, though awareness of the range of his oeuvre – which includes numerous operas, ballets, chamber works and concertos – has grown.  There are forty-five or so solo vocal compositions and while it is true that these are rarely heard in the concert hall, there is a fairly extensive discography available, to which tenor Ian Bostridge and pianist Saskia Giorgini have now added this album of selected songs.  It’s Bostridge’s third recording for the Pentatone label, following his earlier Schubert discs: Winterreise with Thomas Adès (2019) and Die schöne Müllerin with Giorgini (2020).

Respighi’s songs exemplify the varied traits of his musical style and his cultural predilections.  The late nineteenth-century Romanticism of Brahms and Wagner, and of his teachers Martucci and Rimsky-Korsakov, and the lyrical sensitivity of the lieder of Wolf, Duparc and Richard Strauss, are fused with early twentieth-century ‘-isms’ – both the impressionism of Debussy and Ravel, and contemporary neoclassical interests in the past, both fairly recent and ‘antique’.  One hears the influence of medieval modality in some settings, and also the fruits of Respighi’s research into folk traditions which led him to write Italian, Tuscan, Sardinian, French, Armenian, and Scottish folksongs.  He was an informed and ardent scholar of poetry, both ancient and Romantic, and of Greek mythology, literary passions which are reflected in his chosen texts.    

The author of the booklet article, Rafaella Mellace, makes grand claims for the profundity of artistic vision embodied in Respighi’s songs.  While Saskia Giorgini suggests that they take us into ‘a treasure house of colourful and imaginative musical writing, but also to the most intimate area of the composer’s mind’, and that the composer’s ‘clever and always sensitive choice of poetry is a direct reflection of the breadth of his musical imagination’, Mellace goes further and proposes not merely that the relationship between word and music is illuminating, but that the songs are evidence of a ‘sophisticated cultural discourse’ and the attempt to create a ‘modern mythology of nature’ in order to ‘restore the balance between man and nature in an age of astonishing technological progress’. 

I find Giorgini’s reflections on the immediacy of Respighi’s musical ‘scenography’ more convincing, and, in this regard, it seems to me that it is often Respighi’s piano parts that really encapsulate the essence of a poem – whether that essence is philosophical or pictorial – rather than the vocal lines, which are diverse in style but fairly narrow in tessitura and largely follow the verbal stresses and patterns of the text.  Despite this, in many ways the songs play to Bostridge’s strengths.  The vocal lines are light and flexible, and seem to respond spontaneously to textual detail; there are rapid changes of colour and intensity; and there is a striking contrast between the ephemeral beauty of fragile fragments and the robust intensity of the songs’ emotive climaxes.

The groups of songs that Respighi published are rarely connected by a thematic or narrative element, excepting the 4 Liriche P125 (1919) which are unified by the poetic voice of Gabriele D’Annunzio and set four poems from the Poema Paradisiaco of 1893.  Here we have just two of Respighi’s settings of D’Annunzio’s symbolist-influenced texts.  ‘La naiade’ exemplifies all that is wonderful and lovely about Giorgini’s and Bostridge’s partnership in these songs: the dreamlike fleetness; the sense of a moment passing by, exquisite, never to be recaptured, but always to be remembered.  Giorgini’s crystalline precision voices the various piano threads as if they were silken strands in a treasured antique tapestry.  Characteristically, Bostridge does not neglect a single textual inference; when a shiver (“un brivido”) passes the water’s veins, we feel its tactile intensity.  But, there is an airy naturalness here that seems fresh and new, and the tenor moves easily between the recitative-like writing and the Italianate lyricism which flowers at the poetic peaks. 

‘La sera’ (The evening) palpitates with the poet-speaker’s fear that the fragile bond between himself and his beloved, a bond that is sustained only by the ‘dream’ of the dusky moment, will be broken by the intrusion of light or movement.  Giorgini’s ostinato rhythm ticks steadily, the passage of time made more ominous by the piano’s subsequent low, knelling octaves.  Bostridge’s vocal line is full of feeling.  There is vulnerability in the plea, “Fate che questo sogno duri ancora” (Let this dream last longer), fear in the tortured chromatic descent, “Ci ferirebbe forse, come un dardo, la luce” (The light may wound us light a dagger), and anguish in the pained observation that during the day his beloved can scarcely lift her eyelids, “Pare quasi che non possiate sollevare le palpebre”, as if to avoid the reality which would confront her in the daylight.  The poet-speaker tries to resist Time but is ultimately pulled down by its unyielding progress.  

Respighi also set D’Annunzio’s ‘La statua’ during the same summer of 1919, a poem which presents a metaphoric meditation on the art of statuary – an art in which mortal hands both capture life and transcend it.  This promise – that man can render the divine, fusing nature and art in sculpted form – is conveyed at the close of the turbulent song, with Bostridge’s floating image of the sky which seems now higher and more holy, “più lontano e più divino”.  D’Annunzio is once again represented on this disc by ‘O falce di luna’ (O crescent of a waning moon) which opens the 6 Liriche P90 (1909) and in which Giorgini’s Debussy-esque tumbling cascades are a beautifully limpid bed to cushion Bostridge’s lovely legato melody.  The duo present two more songs from this collection: the sparse but delicate ‘Au milieu du jardin’ (Jean Moréas), in which Respighi’s precious evocation nature’s sensuous, transfiguring power is beautifully conveyed by Bostridge’s tenderly soaring vocal ascents, which seem borne aloft by the poet’s desire and dreams; and ‘Pioggia’, in which the piano’s pounding raindrops pause only briefly, to allow Bostridge to cease his racing, scalic description of nature’s onslaught and reflect, with quiet Romantic yearning, on Nature’s self-renewing power.

From the 6 Liriche P97 (1912) we have ‘Notte’ (Ada Negri) – the tranquillity of which is only momentary interrupted by Bostridge’s reflections on the portentous descent of darkness on the ‘fantastic’ garden, perfumed by roses and caressed by shadows – and ‘Le repos en Égypte’ (Albert Victor Samain) which tells the story of Christ’s birth with tender radiance and awe.  The simplicity of the ‘Noël ancient’, which sets an anonymous account of the Christmas story, cleanses the palette of symbolist sensuousness with charm and ease.

Bostridge and Giorgini include the well-known, Puccini-esque ‘Nebbie’ (‘Mists’, 1906), the emotional ravages of which are conveyed with melancholy weight, but of more interest are the brief ‘Bella porta di rubini (‘Beautiful door of Rubies’, Alberto Donini) from the 5 Canti all’antica P71 (1910) – which shares the former’s predominantly scalic melodic shapes, but possesses more beguiling, comforting fluidity – and the setting of an anonymous Sardinian folksong, the ‘tartness’ of which Bostridge and Giorgini capture brilliantly. 

Bostridge conjures a persuasive, and somewhat surprising, Italianate ardour and ‘throb’ when impersonating a lovelorn balladeer, in ‘Stornellatrice’ (1906).  And, while some may find the duo’s performance of Respighi’s Quattro arie scozzesi rather too genteel, I for one am glad that Bostridge did not overdo the Scottish brogue, and it’s a treat to hear the composer’s pre-Britten revisionings of these lovely songs, which bring out their individual flavour in newly imagined, varied harmonisations and accompaniments.  ‘My heart’s in the Highlands’ is sung with particular and charming sincerity by Bostridge, while Giorgini pipes with a vibrant punch in ‘The Piper of Dundee’.

For this listener, though, the best of Respighi comes first on this disc, in the form of the woodland deities of Deità silvane (1917).  Antonio Rubino’s five poems present a symbolist-like surfeit of images that unite music and the natural world through mythological allusion and reference to singing and dancing, and Respighi responds to the poetic richness with a flexibly unfolding panoply of musical scents, colours and textures.  Bostridge and Giorgini make the regularly changing meters and tempos feel natural and free, as small gestures flower and then fade in a sequence of musical blossomings that takes us deep into the wood and its treasures and mysteries.  All of our senses are awakened, made alive to Nature, as Bostridge gently teases out the intimations of the words – sometimes tender, elsewhere passionate, at times confident, then questioning – and Giorgini conjures the poetic pictures into musical metaphors.

In ‘I fauni’ the images come tumbling one after the other: this forest is trembling with sounds and sensations – tumbling, gurgling brooks, choirs of trees, an Arcadian shepherd’s bagpipe.  The impressionistic piano part captures this capriciousness at the start, and Bostridge moves lightly through the parlando line, but with the arrival of the fauns a skipping exuberance infects the piano’s staccato accents and the vocal line swells with rich Italianate lyricism.  The rising vocal phrases gain pace, pushing towards the final image of a nymph fleeing from an arriving shepherd, “ardendo in bocca come ardente fiore” (her mouth burning like a fiery flower), and Bostridge’s ardent, sustained tenor conveys both her fear and her elation.

Similarly, in ‘Musica in horto’ (Music in the garden) the breeze ripples through the reeds creating a clash of antique cymbals, sounds deftly delineated by Giorgini’s sharp-edged acciaccaturas.  The ‘languid lament’ of the flute is beautifully rendered by Bostridge, his voice undulating softly and easily, before a whooping piano glissando injects a rush of rapture, urging the vocal line higher.  The song seems almost to burst its own bounds in the final sensuous image of the flowering roses, their petals open like soft mouths, “come molli bocche”.   In Ancient Greek, ‘aegle’ means ‘brightness’ or ‘dazzling light’, but Aegle is also the name of several mythological figures including the goddess of good health, descended from daughter of the Sun; the most beautiful of the Naiads, a daughter of Zeus; one of the Hesperides; and the lover of Apollo.  Here, she dances a languid waltz, the piano pirouetting somewhat coyly.   Bostridge’s melody descends, secretive, intimate, as the voice describes Aegle, “ristretta con le mani pure/ come le pure fonti della vita,/ di sole e d’ombre mobile vestita” (slight, with pure hands like the pure sources of life, dressed in sun and fluid shadows), then opens out with the image of her dancing, as if we are pushing back the fruit-laden, leafy branches of the wood to espy the goddess’s physical joy – a happiness which the tenor’s smooth, rippling melismas make palpable. 

The song in ‘Acqua’ has the scent of mushroom, moss and maidenhair fern.  The lyrical, expansive vocal line is tenderly supported by the piano’s syncopated lapping and the tinkling of playful reeds.  A lovely serenity prevails.  In the final song, ‘Crepuscolo’ (Twilight), the shadows descend.  Giorigini’s right-hand septuplets are delicate, mysterious, and the open fifths in the bass emit an archaic air, while Bostridge uses his light clear tenor with care and insight to unfold the expressive subtleties of Respighi’s intimate musical gestures.  We wander deep into the abandoned garden where a statue of Pan slumbers, and when the septuplets begin to dance more tautly, stepwise climbs carry us back to the languid waltz of ‘Aegle’.  Bostridge summons vocal darkness and weight to convey the febrile strength and joy of the dance of the goddess of the earth that may awaken the sleeping god, but intimations of mortality follow, and frailty is evoked when the tenor slips magically into a head voice: “per sempre inaridita è la tua fonte” (for ever barren is your spring).  The dusk deepens, the vocal line fades and the piano postlude paints the long azure shadows that descend from the mountain.  Giorgini makes us feel and smell the coolness, the slight dampness, as the dance of Pan’s dreams quietens, more distant, then unheard but, as the inconclusive melody tells us, ongoing.

Claire Seymour

Ian Bostridge (tenor), Saskia Giorgini (piano)

Ottorino Respighi: Deità silvane P107; ‘O falce di luna’, ’Au milieu du jardin’, ‘Pioggia’ (from 6 Liriche P90); ‘Notte’, ‘Le repos en Égypte’, ‘Noël ancien’ (from 6 Liriche P97); ‘Nebbie’ P64; ‘La statua’ P122; ‘La naiade’, ‘La sera’ (from 4 Liriche P125); Notturno (from 6 Pieces for Piano P44); ‘Bella porta di rubini’ (from 5 Canti all’antica P71); ‘ Stornellatrice’ P69; 4 Scottish Songs P143; ‘Canzone sarda’ P155; ‘Le Funtanelle’ (Canzone dell’Abruzzo) P164

Pentatone PTC 5186 872 [67:34]