Before reviewing this bargain EMI Gemini 2-CD set, I think it is worth quoting what the mid-1950s "The Record Guide" had to say about Ottorino Respighi (1876-1936) - along with Max Reger, Respighi is one of my favourite "non-PC" composers!
"At the mention of this composer, most critics - in England, at any rate - look as if they had a bad smell under their noses. Respighi's symphonic poems are condemned as unbearably vulgar, his concertos as academic, his songs are dismissed as pastiches and his operas presumed worthless - and all this by musicians who welcome with respect the stream of insipidity (pentatonic or otherwise) that pours from the less gifted of our native composers. Of course Respighi is not a great composer: no one defends the noisy enormities of the Feste Romane, or the recorded nightingale which plays an anomalous and rather comic part in The Pines of Rome; but the strain of vulgarity in Respighi's temperament - a vulgarity that is German rather than Italian - was accompanied by a broadly picturesque imagination and a deeply musical sense of romantic beauty. His technical skill, abundantly displayed in the scoring of Rossini's piano pieces for the ballet, La Boutique Fantastque, is the only part of Respighi's equipment which is not questioned. Until his concertos and songs, and above all his operas, become better known in England, it cannot be expected that justice will be done to his music..."
Well, things have moved on in the half-century since those wise words were written, and there are now hundreds of recordings of Respighi's works available, all of which, I believe, deserve a high degree of respect for their sheer craft - they are nearly all very enjoyable to listen to indeed! If you like Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, Erich Korngold, look south of the Alps for a change and give Respighi a prolonged try.
This EMI Gemini 2-CD set has a good selection of some of his best-known pieces. The first disc starts off with one of his opera overtures - "Belfagor" - and then moves on to the ubiquitous "Pines of Rome" and "Fountains of Rome". These three works are given idiomatic performances by the London Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Lamberto Gardelli, beautifully recorded in April 1976 in Abbey Road Studio No.1 by John Mortimer and Christopher Parker.
A few months earlier in 1976, Sir Neville Marriner and The Academy of St Martin in the Fields recorded "Gli uccelli" ("The Birds") in Abbey Road with Christopher Bishop and Christopher Parker - a stunning analogue recording. At the same time, the same forces recorded "Trittico botticelliano" - superb.
Finally, we have September 1975 recordings by Sir Neville Marriner and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra with the complete three suites of Respighi's "Antiche arie ed danze" - the right size ensemble for these skilfully written pieces.
One could argue that Gardelli's recording isn't quite as exciting as, say, the superb Enrique Batiz recording on Naxos Respighi: Symphonic Poems, but I rather enjoy the less cacophonous approach sometimes.
If you like this music, and you should, you could then try the lengthy, Mahlerian, "Sinfonia Drammatica" from 1914, superbly recorded by Daniel Nazareth and the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra for Naxos in 1986 Respighi - Sinfonia Drammatica, and then off you go! Recommended.