Alongside subsequent sets of ‘Ancient dances and airs’, Respighi composed his appealing five-movement suite, Gli uccelli (The birds), in 1928, skillfully paraphrasing baroque keyboard pieces and dovetailing a musical menagerie of feathered friends, specified and implied. The opening ‘Prelude’, employing an arresting theme by Pasquini, is pure exhibition: our attention turns from caged canaries to many delicate and exotic species

all emerging fleetingly to the foreground and ceremoniously flying off in formation, save for the decorous peacock.

Rather more specific is ‘La colomba’ (‘The Dove’) which is afforded an old-world

sarabande, almost biblical in its nostalgic cadences, peaceful feathers barely ruffled. It is an exquisite chamber set-piece. The real onomatopoeic action starts in the coop of Rameau’s famous ‘Hen’ (‘La gallina’ in Italian) where the restless pecking manifests itself in tripping semiquavers, at once whimsical, graphic, sequential and

ironic. Respighi’s respect for the pantomime from within the sinews of Rameau’s original is both instinctive and lends itself to this idiom where the trumpet’s mute can contribute to a kind of musical Botticelli.

Quite how Respighi sourced his material so successfully at a time when ‘early music’ was barely accessible in the representative advocacy of the post-war era is probably more a matter of serendipity than anything. Yet the aptness of folksong material in the atmospheric ‘L’usignuolo’ (‘The Nightingale’), from Jacob van Eyck’s ‘Engels Nactegaeltje’, is intimate and affecting.  What follows in ‘Il cucù’ (‘The Cuckoo’) is the most clichéd of springtime sound worlds but through an inventively counterpointed patchwork of ‘baroque’ pastiche-incipits, we finally return, maze-like, to the opening theme where the full aviary takes its final bow.

This concert suite requires dexterity from both players. The greatest chance for success lies in the nature of the preparation with the duo partner, primarily by harnessing interpretative ideas through rhythmic control, varied articulation and deft characterization.

Jonathan Freeman-Attwood

Parts included:

  • Piano
  • Trumpet in C