Self-restraint was evidently not at the top of Respighi’s list of priorities when he composed Pines of Rome in 1924.
The orchestral forces enlisted for this 20-minute symphonic poem include a large organ – ideally with a 32-foot pedal stop – six bucinas (Roman trumpets), a vast percussion section and even a gramophone player. It isn’t just about creating a big noise, however, and over the four movements the composer beguiles us with vivid depictions of various pine tree-adorned scenes in Italy’s capital city.
Opening with children playing on a sunny morning at the Villa Borghese, the work then plunges us into the gloom of a scene near a catacomb, from which emerges a haunting chant.
Night brings us to the Janiculum hill, where the calm is broken only by the song of a nightingale (played on said gramophone).
Finally, as dawn breaks, we head back through the centuries to witness the Roman army making its way along the Appian Way, a march that ends in a thrilling, triumphant climax.
The best recording of Respighi's Pines of Rome
Antonio Pappano (conductor)
Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia (2007)
Warner Classics 394 4292
Though Rome’s finest orchestra undoubtedly rises to the occasion of playing its ‘home’ music, the magic here is really down to conductor Antonio Pappano who, in a performance rich in imagination, captures the mood of the work’s four very differing moments spot on.
Outside the Villa Borghese, Pappano lets his children run gleefully amok – as the movement frantically gathers tempo, the orchestra sounds as though it’s on the cusp of haring out of control… but is just about kept in check. And in the following ‘Pines Near a Catacomb’, Pappano creates the necessary sense of space by duly following the composer’s instruction to place the trumpet soloist ‘as far away as possible’ – many, surprisingly, don’t.
A feel for distance, too, distinguishes Pappano’s march along the Appian Way. As his Roman soldiers first come into view, they are an ominous presence on the horizon, the pounding of their feet scarcely discernible.
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Only as they draw near, and the sun glints off their armour, does Pappano unleash the full force of his vast orchestra. Some conductors peak too soon here or progress in fits and spurts; Pappano paces the march to perfection.
As for caveats? With this being a live performance, Respighi’s magnificent array of sounds is joined here by the occasional cough or two from the Rome audience. It’s a small gripe, though.
Three more great recordings of Respighi's Pines of Rome
Lorin Maazel (conductor)
Cleveland Orchestra (1976)
Decca 466 9932
Respighi’s Pines was championed in the US by Toscanini and the New York Philharmonic soon after its premiere, and its continuing popularity across the pond is amply reflected by a sizable clutch of excellent recordings by American orchestras: the Philadelphia Orchestra and Riccardo Muti (Warner) make up for lack of subtlety with raw excitement, while Fritz Reiner’s similarly thrilling 1957 recording with the Chicago Symphony (RCA) and Seiji Ozawa’s lively account with the Boston Symphony (DG) are also worth exploring.
For an elegant performance coupled with truly opulent sound, however, Lorin Maazel and the Cleveland Orchestra get the nod – to pick out just one moment, the thundering organ and brass emerging from the dark depths in Maazel’s ‘Pines near a catacomb’ are simply awe-inspiring.
Charles Dutoit (conductor)
Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal (1984)
Decca 410 1452
While others like to linger and enjoy the Roman views, Charles Dutoit is a man on a mission – his let’s-keep-things-moving approach is a bit of a one-off, but remarkably effective. The fast-driven tempos give unity and cohesion to a work that can sometimes feel episodic, and yet at no time does the listener feel rushed.
Yes, Dutoit’s ‘Pines of the Janiculum’ could be a little more perfumed and self-indulgent, but his brisk march up the Appian Way works a treat. Whereas others trudge, Dutoit’s Roman legion pounds toward us with an aggressive, Stravinsky-like menace. This is an army that means business, and don’t we know it.
Eiji Oue (conductor)
Minnesota Orchestra (2001)
Reference Recordings RR-95CD
As a young man, Respighi went to study under Rimsky-Korsakov in Russia, and one can detect glimpses of the great man’s influence in the lush Romanticism of the ‘Pines of the Janiculum’ – a movement that also has a touch of the Impressionism of Debussy and Ravel about it.
It is here that the Eiji Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra come into their own. In superbly recorded sound, Oue carefully blends the various colours that make Respighi’s night-time soundscape so seductive, picking out details here and there but never over-emphasising them – notice, for instance, how the cello solo is given a dreamy wistfulness by setting the player slightly back from the mic.
It’s extraordinarily atmospheric, and a timely reminder that Respighi’s Pines is not all about power and bombast.
And one to avoid...
Herbert von Karajan (conductor)
Berlin Philharmonic (1996)
There’s not much fun to be had when Mr Karajan is on playground duty. Ever the control freak in this 1978 Berlin Philharmonic recording, the maestro keeps his children outside the Villa Borghese in strictly regimented, neatly rhythmical order – there’s no joie de vivre.
In his ‘Pines of the Appian Way’, meanwhile, we get brass, brass and more brass, to the near-obliteration of any other orchestral texture. It all leaves one feeling a little short-changed.