If your idea of Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936) is simply as the flash and dash composer of the colourful Roman Trilogy, this ravishing disc of his rarely recorded solo songs will set the record straight. The 67-minute program was a lockdown project for the gifted pianist Saskia Giorgini who was on the hunt for something to lift her heart. “Not only did I gain access to a treasure house of colourful and imaginative musical writing, but also to the most intimate area of the composer’s mind,” she writes in her sleeve note. “And what a mind!”

Ian Bostridge

It’s true. Respighi was an endlessly curious, widely read artist fluent in 11 languages. These two dozen songs were written between 1905 and 1930 so effectively document the composer’s stylistic development. They range from an Italian-inflected Impressionism with passing hints of Wagner to folk music, both of his native land and further abroad – the four arrangements of traditional Scottish songs that conclude the disc are an unexpected pleasure – but are always rooted in melody, much of it immediately memorable. His setting of text, whether declamatory or lyrical, is always apposite, and never clunky.

They turn out to suit Giorgini’s regular recital partner, Ian Bostridge, a singer better known for English song and German Lieder, down to the ground. The British tenor’s ethereal upper register and instinct for interrogating a text bring out more than just Respighi’s immaculately spun melodies. The voice can be very lovely indeed, especially in the wistful ballads with their aching sense of a vanished past, but there’s something about the way Bostridge inhabits the storytelling that really lifts this music off the page.

The disc opens with Deità Silvane, a sequence of five songs published in 1917, their imagery rooted in the classical past. Eros is clearly in the air (even the zephyrs, we are told, are lascivious) in a landscape populated by scampering nymphs and satyrs. The skittering accompaniments are a little reminiscent of Britten’s Michelangelo Sonnets, natural territory for Bostridge who relishes the scene and explores the texts with considerable imagination. The concluding Crepuscolo (Twilight) is ravishingly sung, half nocturne, half love song, perfectly conjuring the image of Respighi’s nymph resting provocatively in the half-light with her “beautiful pert bust.”

Several songs are settings of Gabriele d’Annunzio, an Italian poet whose individual brand of sensual mysticism is overshadowed these days by his ultranationalist views and influence on Mussolini. He certainly brought out the best in Respighi, heard here in the dusky O Falce di Luna (O crescent of a waning moon) and the dripping forest of La Naiade (The Naiad). Giorgini proves adept at both invoking mood and supporting Bostridge’s delicately spun lines (there’s some ravishingly hushed singing here).

That sense of partnership and original thought is never finer than in Respighi’s best-known songs – the hypnotically tolling Nebbie (Mists) and the exquisitely perfumed garden of Notte (Night), both to texts by Ada Negri – which here come up fresh as daisies. And I defy anyone’s spirits not to be lifted by their jaunty flings in the company of the bonnie lads and lassies of When the Kye Come Hame and The Piper of Dundee. A truly perfect and revelatory recital. 

Available on Apple Music

Composer: Respighi
Works: Selected songs
Performers: Ian Bostridge, Saskia Giorgini
Label: Pentatone PTC5186872

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