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Belkis, Queen of Sheba - Suite
Dance of the Gnomes
The Pines of Rome

Respighi "Belkis, Queen of Sheba - Suite"

By Karl Lozier
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CD Number: RR-95 CD


I.   Quite a surprise for me as I'm not sure I've ever heard the first two selections. The third selection, The Pines of Rome is very possibly Respighi's most famous and popular composition. Belkis, Queen of Sheba is the famous biblical tale of her visit to King Solomon. Audiophiles as well as music lovers should know that this ballet's original score adds an offstage band and a wind machine, a chorus, tenor, narrator, sitar and other exotic instruments. The premiere was held in 1932 and featured nearly a thousand performers! There were enthusiastic reviews but only eleven performances.

The opulent score was too big. Respighi knew it and decided to create two suites from the score; unfortunately he was only able to create one suite due to his failing health. "Solomon's Dream", the opening section of this suite is actually from the ballet's second of seven scenes and it ends with music from scene five. The quite lovely and at times mystical music builds quite quickly to some passages with particularly impressive bass drum reproduction. Following soon after is some of the most realistically recorded string sections I've heard lately on CD! All in all, very richly scored with some unusual instrumental touches and all of it clearly audible with fine depth of soundscape. Portions of this sound a bit reminiscent of some of the exotic sections of Scherezade. It concludes very quietly.

The following "Dance of Belkis at Dawn" starts as if it were a continuation of the preceding. It is rather simply scored for the most part and has some particularly attractive passages for cello. There are many definite and immediately attractive mystical or oriental touches to some of these passages. Call it subtly beautiful overall with suitably atmospheric reproduction of the hall's acoustics.

"War Dance" starts out much more extroverted than the previous sections of "Solomon's Dream" and "Dance of Belkis", though not quite on the level of Holsts' "Mars the Bringer of War" from the Planets, and sound basically of demonstration quality. It also adds instruments with exotic and oriental impressions. Relatively powerful and impressive but not quite overwhelmingly so and concomitantly a melody is appearing that has you expecting to see a cobra rise up from a basket and sway to the rhythms. Fine brass playing, reproduced with a realistic feeling of depth for an orchestra deployed across a relatively wide stage is a prominent feature of the ending of this section.

"Orgiastic Dance" (featuring Chad Shelton, tenor) is the final section of the suite. The score indicates a section to feature either a trumpet (the usual choice) or a tenor. This is the first recording known to feature the tenor. Here he is recorded very atmospherically but so distantly that my guess is that Mr. Shelton's reputation will not receive a boost because of this recording. All builds to a suitable finale that could be used as a fitting climax to some movies such as older historical dramas ended by battles or whatever. It should gladden the sensory receptors of any audiophile; it is of demonstration quality. Highly recommended; this plus the following Gnomes, together are easily worth this CD's price of admission.


II.   Dance of the Gnomes almost sounds as if it were a continuation of Belkis, minus much of the exotic touches, actually written about a dozen years previously.

This work was not an immediate success and though Toscanini and Reiner both championed it for years it pretty much disappeared from concert halls by the late thirties. In the final track of this selection, near the beginning, there is an outstanding passage with a few deeply tuned bass drum strokes that will give your subwoofer section all it cares to handle or maybe more. I'm very serious about that statement; bass that extended in range and high in level is not common! That passage is as deep and full sounding as anything I can remember hearing recently! If you listen at a high level either your wall or pictures hung on it should vibrate. Soon after this there is a subtly beautiful passage for bassoon. Then, comes a very fitting climax. Much of this could be appropriately used in a soundtrack.


III.   Pines of Rome. This work is so familiar that because of the space I've given to the other works, I'm going to short-change the Pines. The "Catacomb's" track is almost perfectly atmospherically performed and recorded. Not a show-off section per se, just outstanding music making. Nice work by the horns and beautifully reproduced. Same goes for the next section; here listen and see if your system will present you with the subtle beautiful sounds of both the harp and celesta. They are a bit "highlighted and if your system does not let you clearly hear them, you might do well to consider an upgrade to your sound system. Start by scrolling through our present and archives sections of equipment reviews. The "Appian Way" section is deservedly famous, well known and used in many movies - you can easily visualize the famous Roman legions marching down the Appian Way relentlessly getting closer and closer and closer (reminisces of Bolero) and culminating in perhaps the most famous "audiophile recording climax" ever in recording history. For the uninitiated this is the Fritz Reiner-Chicago Symphony version recorded forty-two years ago! The story is that someone forgot to touch any of "the controls, probably while making the production master tape". As a result, the first lacquers (#1s) identified by the tiny "s" numbers in the run out area of an LP, and mistakenly referred to as the stamper numbers, were cut at an extremely high level with no compression, roll-off or restrictions. Most customers returned the records, RCA LSC-2436, as unplayable and they were destroyed. Remaining ones are rare (I've only seen three) and are one of, if not the most sought after stereo classical LP of all time, particularly by audiophiles plus the performance is outstanding and appeals to music lovers as well. The next group may consist of only "s" numbers 3 and 5; they were cut by only one or two decibels lower in level to make them playable; again many were returned. Supposedly all other "s" numbers (higher) were cut at least five decibels lower and probably rolled off a bit at frequency extremes and were now playable by most customers. These low "s" # versions were cut at a higher level than the mono release that I also have, which was not the norm. RCA's half-speed mastered pressing, Chesky's "tubed" and Classic's solid-state remastering all tried but could not quite equal those low numbered "s" releases, probably because of deterioration of the very old master tape. I was a bit surprised that my RCA "half-speed mastered" pressing had good dynamics and level, but fell shy in the bottom octave and a half. It had been done many years before these other efforts.

For you vinyl lovers out there, I'm going to tell you that you may be shocked at the superb reproduction on this HDCD recording. The performance is fine overall, a touch less dynamic than Reiner in the Pines possibly, but close. In the finale, repeated comparison with my pristine copy of Reiner's LP wound up almost a toss up, the famous old "six of one, half dozen of the other" routine. The orchestras' just sound different, the perspective is different and there seems to be a different seating arrangement for the brass and winds. If you just listen to one instrumental section at a time for comparison, things just change again if you listen to another group and so on. However, overall both are superb but different. The bottom octave below fifty Hertz is noticeably stronger and more extended with this HDCD as you might expect. Basically the finale is tremendous with excellent reproduction of the brass instruments as well as the famous bass instruments' entry. Your interest in this recording should be at the top of the maximum rating-one of the well loved showpieces plus a couple of fine new selections that you should enjoy getting used to. Add absolutely top quality audio recording and you have a fine example of my highest recommendation.














































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