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Rico Saccani's Respighi Rings True

By Emil Franzi

Ancient Airs And Dances, Suites 1-3. National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland, Rico Saccani. Naxos 8.553546. Available at Borders Books and Music. CD, $6.98.

SEPTEMBER 8, 1997:  RICO SACCANI IS one of Tucson's major artistic exports. Tucson born and raised, and at one time a law student at the UA, Saccani's musical career took off in 1984 when he won first prize in the Herbert von Karajan International Conducting Competition.

Like Toscanini, Bernstein, and Michael Tilson Thomas, he got his first big break when a regular conductor--Carlos Kleiber--got ill. Saccani replaced him at the last minute at the Vienna State Opera and subsequently becoming a regular there. Since 1990 he's also performed regularly at the Metropolitan Opera. Currently he's chief conductor of the Sergio Failoni Chamber Orchestra of Budapest and principal guest conductor of the Hungarian State Opera and the Budapest Philharmonic.

This is Saccani's first commercial recording, and it's an auspicious beginning for what promises to be a long and distinguished career.

Naxos is a budget label, but don't let that put you off. It draws from that multitude of relatively unknown--but high-quality--artists who've yet to make the "big time." And its artists compare favorably to the well-known on the "major" labels, as Saccani's Respighi Proves.

Naxos is the brainchild of Klaus Heymann, who started in the early '80s with the Marco Polo label, which records music nobody else does using unknown artists and orchestras from places like Bratislava and Singapore. The concept worked well, with hundreds of obscure releases selling out. There are enough classical collectors around the globe to ensure sufficient sales of just about anything--if you can get it to them. Marco Polo/Naxos has figured out the key is distribution.

Naxos plans to record and release--dig this--everything. The entire standard repertory--Bach cantatas, Puccini operas, Beethoven quartets--all will eventually be sitting in racks at places like Borders for a fraction of the cost of "name brand" releases. We hope Saccani gets a big piece of this action.

Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936) is best known for three rather bombastic and colorful tone poems making up the Roman Trilogy--The Pines of Rome, The Fountains of Rome, and Roman Festivals. He was one of the greatest orchestrators of all time, standing with Berlioz, Rimsky-Korsakov, Ravel and Richard Strauss as a dispenser of pure color and orchestral effect. But like them, he too had his quieter moments, as exemplified by the Three Suites of Ancient Airs and Dances. Based on 16th- and 17th-century French and Italian lute music, they were written in 1917, 1923 and 1931.

The almost definitive performance of these works has been the 1958 Mercury recording with the Philharmonia Hungarica under Antal Dorati. Other competing versions currently available come from Richard Hickox with Sinfonia 21 on the Chandos label, and Sir Neville Marriner's 1976 version on EMI with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.

The biggest problem with today's conductors--and many of today's musicians--is their propensity to sound too much like each other. What Saccani accomplishes with his Irish orchestra (nominally so, anyway--most of the players, as in most other European orchestras, are from somewhere else) is to produce his own unique interpretation.

Saccani's total timing for all three suites is only about 30 seconds different from Dorati's, but the variances for each of the 12 sections are both slower and faster. Where Dorati is elegant, Saccani is lyrical, where Dorati is sometimes joyful, Saccani is more subdued. Sometimes Saccani speeds up where Dorati slows down, other times their tempos are almost identical. In general Saccani is mellower than Dorati. Reviewing this recording in the bible of recording criticism, Fanfare, Ian Lace puts the Saccani performance up with the other three contenders.

None of these performances is "the one"--they're all examples of different interpretations by superb artists, which is what "performance" is all about.

That Saccani is capable of artistic parity with Dorati and Marriner at this stage of his career bodes well for his future. His first recorded interpretation places him apart from much of the herd making up most of today's new conductors, and that bodes even better for music lovers world wide.

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