RESPIGHI: Suite from Belkis, Queen of Sheba; Ballata delle Gnomini; Pines of Rome
Minnesota Orchestra/ Eiji Oue, cond.; Chad Shelton, tenor (in Belkis)
Reference Recordings RR-95 [DDD] [F] TT: 62:30
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Respighi has not sounded like this on discs since - well, let's say since never before. Perhaps we've had more versions of Pini di Roma over the years than even the composer might have wished for, considering how middling too many have been, either as conducted, played or recorded. But the Minnesota Orchestra is up to the challenge - in the same league with (alphabetically listed) Chicago/Reiner, Cleveland/Maazel, and Philadelphia/Muti or Ormandy, take your choice. Listen to the Minneapolis SO recording with Doráti on recycled Mercury Classics and discover how the now-Minnesota Orchestra has advanced in the ranks: up there with San Francisco, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and the National SO on good nights. Eiji Oue (phonetically rendered as "AG-OA") can take a major share of the credit for building on standards he inherited in 1995.

But let's not overlook "Prof” Keith O. Johnson, Ref/Rec"s recording engineer since the company's establishment, or producer J. Tamblyn Henderson, Jr, who've nailed the acoustics of Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. Then add the lucid "Perfessor's" signature HDCD microphone set-up, and Respighi's voluptuous orchestral pallette - even more exotic, erotic and wildly gorgeous in this four-movement suite from his 1930-31 ballet, Belkis, the Queen of Sheba, than in Pines (or its Roman companions, Fontani and Feste). The only Belkis I've ever found in a record catalog was Geoffrey Simon's on Chandos with the Philharmonia Orchestra, which isn't in this category as a reading or as a recording, and which furthermore changes the order of Respighi's movements and omits a brief tenor solo. Astoundingly, the suite was neglected by Respighi partisans in palmier podium years than now - that is to say, by Toscanini, Reiner, de Sabata and Marinuzzi - as much as it has been since. OK, the original ballet lasted 80 minutes and called for a thousand performers; La Scala presented it 11 times in 1932 to enthusiastic audiences, and the premiere attracted a transatlantic press. But costs proved prohibitive everywhere thereafter.

Respighi made the suite before his death in 1936, but unfortunately Mussolini had invaded and conquered Ethiopia by then, despite worldwide protests, and contemporary Italian composers paid the price in canceled performances. The Queen of Sheba got shunted onto a siding (did everyone else but me know Belkis was her name?). So, earlier, did Ballata delle gnomini (1920), which Schwann/Opus lists mootly as "Ballad" rather than "Dance," although it is colorful kitsch based on a lurid poem that parallels, in part, the slaughter of men in Smetana's Sarka. Reiner introduced it stateside with the Cincinnati SO (and wanted the American premiere of Pines plus a subsequent tour; but Toscanini claimed it instead for his opening program as chief conductor of the New York Philharmonic-Symphony in 1926). Reiner got even years later. Toscanini recorded Pines and Fountains in mono for RCA with the NBCSO, but Reiner conducted stereo versions in 1959 with his vastly superior Chicago SO, bettering the "Old Man" chapter and verse.

His Pines has remained a benchmark ever since, although it wasn't until the "Living Stereo" remastering that an overloaded "Appian Way" climax was finally cleaned-up. Interestingly, Oue takes 1:34 longer overall than Reiner, although in his marginally slower version the children seem to play more frenetically at the Villa Borghese. The "Catacombs" tempi differ by only two seconds, but in the ensuing "Janiculan Pines" Reiner is 45 seconds shorter without seeming faster. And his famously unhurried "Appian Way" is still 38 seconds quicker than Oue's. What both have understood, however, is that the Imperial Roman army in full armor would not have quick-stepped, as it usually is made to do in other performances (most recently, López-Cobos' 4:37 on Telarc vs. Reiner's 5:08 vs. Oue's 5:46). You may not hear from Minneapolis quite the sound of Adolph Herseth's Chicago trumpet or Ray Still's oboe, but solo winds are superb, trumpets stentorian, strings first-class throughout, and recorded sound at the climax that could crack plaster and wake neighbors if you drive your rig to the max.

Of the seven Oue/Minneapolis CDs I know on Ref/Rec (out of 12 to date), this is easily the grandest, musically as well as sonically. In the bargain, it has one of the most thoroughgoing annotations by Richard Freed that you'll find on any label today, geography notwithstanding (he even includes an English version of Carlo Clausetti's "Ballata delle gnomine"). But it's the Queen of Sheba you must get to know; she really knew how to produce an orgy, whether for visiting royalty or for us ear-to-the-wall commoners!

R.D. (Aug. 2001)