At some point in 2004, I think it was, I had a good idea. I have only ever had three: one was for a collective biography of the original soloists in Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music; another was for a collective biography of Beethoven’s pallbearers. On this occasion, I thought how marvellous it would be if someone would make a recording of the original lute pieces that formed the basis of Respighi’s suites of Ancient Airs and Dances. My delight at finding that it had already been done nearly 20 years previously by the lutenist Paul O’Dette was tempered only slightly by the realisation of my utter incapability of originality.
Respighi’s three orchestral suites, Antiche arie e danze, composed in 1917, 1923 and 1932 respectively, are pieces I have loved since I was given the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra/Marriner recording on tape by my grandmother as a little boy (that is, I was a little boy). Aged five or six, I used to listen to them to send me to sleep. Like Stravinsky’s contemporaneous Pulcinella, they draw on pieces written centuries earlier as source material – in Respighi’s case, 16th- and 17th-century Italian and French lute music.
This project must have been a labour of love, given Respighi’s failure to acknowledge his sources. O’Dette traced the majority of them to collections of transcriptions for guitar published by Oscar Chilesotti (1848–1916), and his successful endeavours to return the pieces to their original forms can be heard on this recording. Most of the pieces are for solo lute, though one of the more striking instrumental pieces, ‘Bransles de village’ by Jean-Baptiste Besard, calls for an accompanying bass lute, played by Nigel North. There is one consort piece, Fabritio Caroso’s beautiful ‘Laura soave’, in which O’Dette is joined by violinist John Holloway and bass violist Christel Thielmann (Mrs O’Dette).
Respighi also employed a small number of French songs, namely Antoine Boësset’s gorgeous ‘Divine Amaryllis’ and a set of airs de cour by Besard, which are sung here with dexterity by Rogers Covey-Crump, the greatest name in classical music. His stylish melodic ornamentations are most pleasing to the ear.
The recording was made in the Seldon Hall at Haberdasher’s Aske’s, and is not without background noise. This is part of its charm for me. It is all too easy for me to close my eyes and imagine I am in the studio of a Florentine artisan. The omniscient Iain Fenlon calls it “a delightful record, sensitively recorded to capture all the immediacy of these simple, domestic pieces.” I find the whole thing very charming, and see no reason why it shouldn’t be enjoyed as much by listeners unfamiliar with the more popular Respighi suites as by those who approach the music as it were second-hand.