Ottorino Respighi (1879–1936) was an anomaly among the Italian composers of his time: he wasn’t known for his operas, despite writing a dozen of them. His fame and fortune derived instead from tone poems, a genre largely abandoned after the early twentieth century. His 1916 Fountains of Rome earned him an international reputation. Somewhat surprisingly, it took him eight years to follow up with a sequel, The Pines of Rome, which The Fabulous Wife and I heard the San Francisco Symphony perform on May 12 under French conductor Stéphane Denève.

The climactic section of The Pines of Rome, called “Pines of the Appian Way,” has raised political and aesthetic questions since its first performance. Respighi himself noted that the five-minute final movement was intended to evoke “the army of the Consul burst[ing] forth in the grandeur of a newly risen sun toward the Sacred Way, mounting in triumph the Capitoline Hill.” The piece was written shortly after Mussolini took power, so it was assumed Respighi was not-so-subtly expressing solidarity with the new regime. The fascists loved the piece, only reinforcing that impression. It didn’t help that in some ways, Respighi was a musical conservative.

Based on what I’ve read, though, Respighi wasn’t consciously political. To the degree he brought any agenda to his art, it was in the form of nationalism, very common among European composers of the time. And in Italy, splintered for centuries before overcoming Papal and other resistance to unify in 1871, nationalism had liberal overtones.

The final section of Pines of Rome presents aesthetic concerns because it’s so loud. Respighi learned orchestration from the ultimate master, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, during a prolonged gig as a viola player in St. Petersburg. He composed the piece for a huge orchestra, and just about everyone plays at top volume during the last two minutes. But the pince-nez wearing types who attended classical concerts in those days — and often provided philanthropic support as well — tended to look upon loudness as vulgar. And a certain degree of that fuddy-duddy attitude persists.

So the main question a conductor faces when leading The Pines of Rome is how to play the ending. Many conductors elect to mute the triumphalism and volume. Others race through the last several dozen bars at top speed to mitigate any offense.

Last Saturday night, though, Denève went big. He played the conclusion at moderate speed and as ear-splitting as his players could make it.

It was glorious.

I’ve never understood why so many classical music fans are scornful of volume. Being carried away by super-loud sound is an elemental human pleasure. I was a rock ‘n roll fan before I settled into classical, and it’s no coincidence that many of the first pieces I learned were spectacularly loud. I’m pretty sure I caught on to Pines of Rome before I turned 20.

The closest version I could find to Denève’s is this one from 2011 conducted by Georges Prêtre. Leave it to the French! They seem to understand the music of neighboring cultures better than the natives. As Peter Susskind, a musicologist and the son of conductor Walter Susskind, claimed in a lecture before the concert, the three greatest pieces of Spanish classical music are all by French composers: Iberia by Debussy, Rapsodie Espagnole by Ravel, and Espana by Chabrier. Denève and Prêtre do the same for the interpretation of Respighi’s best-known piece.

If Prêtre’s motions put you off, forgive him: he was 87 when this was recorded. Just turn the sound to 11, especially after the three-minute mark, and enjoy!

Respighi a year before his death.

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