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When we consider Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936), chances are we think of the three Roman tone poems – The Fountains of Rome, Pines ..., and Roman Festivals – or the Christmas oratorio or the three sets of Ancient Airs and Dances, the originals of which aren't by him at all. Comb the recesses of the mind and Church Windows and The Birds may surface. The stage works, songs, and chamber music are hardly known on this side of the Atlantic. But based on the four works presented in Duke's Nelson Music Room on the afternoon of October 19, the loss is ours.
Mezzo-soprano Sandra Cotton is to thank for this reminder of the richness of Respighi's less-known works. The main offering was Il Tramonto, a setting of Shelley's "The Sunset" for voice and string quartet. It's been heard here, but rarely. On this occasion, the soloist gave a superb reading, clearly and distinctly projected, the text lovingly conveyed, and admirably supported by a "new" quartet – violinists Gregorio Midero (of the Winston-Salem Symphony) and Rebekah Carlson (based in High Point but frequently heard as a freelancer in the Triangle), violist Noah Hock (affiliated with the WSS and Greensboro Symphony), and cellist Brian Carter (Fayetteville Symphony, Salisbury, etc.). The ensemble has promise, based on the players' work here and in the program's final work, the Quartet No. 3 in D, one of the composer's earlier works.
Cotton bolstered the favorable impression she created in the dramatic Tramonto with four attractive Armenian poems, set by Respighi in 1921, and then bolstered these with two other early works for voice and piano, "Invitation to the Dance" and "Stornellatrice," a song about a singer of songs. These were splendidly accompanied by David Heid, whose presence on the platform is generally an iron-clad guarantee of success; the partnership he and Cotton displayed reflected the fullest meaning of "artistic partnership" – and the songs appealed on multiple levels, too.
The concert opened with one of Respighi's greatest "unknown" works, the incomparable Adagio with Variations for cello and piano, the latter in the capable hands of Kathryn Lewis. Carter had some challenges with intonation during this, a pity for it is such a compelling elegy, one that more than equals, say, Barber's famous Adagio. A slightly slower tempo might have eased the occasional pitch challenges and concurrently further enhanced the music's considerable depth of feeling.
The concert ended with the aforementioned String Quartet No. 3, a big, four-movement score, heavily laden with melodic invention (although some of the tunes in the first movement seemed somewhat underdeveloped). The second movement, a theme with variations, struck this listener as a real gem. These artists would be welcome to continue their explorations of these little-known works by a composer whose career and life were tainted to a certain degree at the end by politics but whose compositional inventiveness was underscored throughout this admirable program.
The program notes were by Cotton and Carter, and texts and translations were provided for all the vocal numbers. (Well done!)