theartsdesk in Rome: Abbado, Shakespeare and Santa Cecilia | Classical music reviews, news & interviews
theartsdesk in Rome: Abbado, Shakespeare and Santa Cecilia
The world's greatest living conductor achieves miracles with a Roman orchestra already on top form
Many of Italy's artistic institutions may have tottered or crumbled during the Berlusconi years, and the more capable new man in the Palazzo Chigi can only offer painful sticking plaster, yet one major orchestra has never sounded better. Of the two elder statesmen among conductors returning to Rome this month, Riccardo Muti may bring a cosmetic gravitas to the tentative renaissance of Rome's beleaguered Opera House; but Claudio Abbado revisited the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia last Sunday after a 30-year absence to confirm perhaps the country's only blazing musical success story, an orchestra already firing on all cylinders under its music director Antonio Pappano.
What was its legacy before Pappano (pictured below right in front of one of the copper domes of Renzo Piano's Parco della Musica) came along in 2005? A revelatory new eight-CD set compiled from the Accademia's archives confirms how precise and brilliant it could be under Molinari and De Sabata in the late 1930s and the 1940s. There have been great performances since then, of course, not least given the ineffable state visits of Carlo Maria Giulini, but the most prominent recordings we got to hear while the band mostly stayed at home suggest a capable but wiry sound in the Decca opera series starring Tebaldi and, later, Bernstein's Debussy and Puccini, with the conductor's usual electricity but still that thin, undisciplined string sound.
Pappano's electrifying, sometimes hot-tempered relationship with the orchestra has embraced a great deal of hard work on tone quality and an identifiable singing approach which has just led to a Mahler Sixth recording up there with the finest. The Accademia line-up features a clutch of superlative more recent incomers, nearly all Italian: woodwind of quality and a first horn, Alessio Allegrini, who stands among the world's best and also plays in Abbado's superband, the Lucerne Festival Orchestra.
Add to the mix the players of Abbado's Bologna-based "special project", the Orchestra Mozart - quite a few of its woodwind principals, especially, also serve in the Accademia - and you have the kind of unrepeatable event I travelled out to Rome last weeked to see and hear. It was as much of a revelation to the players as it was to the audience. Principal second violin David (no "e") Romano has been with the Santa Cecilia orchestra since 1986, working with Daniele Gatti and Myung-Whun Chung. He's the first to praise the "tornado" effect of Pappano's hard work, but having never played under Abbado, a master whose work he has watched and listened to since childhood, had to admit that this was something else. In his opinion, "With Claudio Abbado, you can not speak about sound or going together; it's something that shines around him." Luminosity? "Yes, it’s really a shining, something that is not coming from this world."
Everyone respects him – everyone knows what has to be done
At the same time, Romano points out how intensely practical Abbado was in rehearsal. "For three days he was obsessive about getting everything together, everything in the right place. And in the concert, nothing like that. It was all about phrasing." It comes as no surprise to hear that Abbado doesn't say much. "Something always comes from him, but he is not a talking man. He said nothing about being together, the opportunity of making music together. The work and the music were the thing. His hands are wonderful; he is now 76 and seems fragile, but when he starts to move in that unique way, no one can fail to follow him. And with some people, the smile does not reach the eyes, but in his case he smiles with his whole face - you know how much it means.
"Four days ago, he could have had no idea how this orchestra is - I know he's spoken to Tony [Pappano] since and said he was amazed - and he’s used to having a rehearsal without any break. Here in Rome we take a break after an hour and a half, and on the first day he made a break after two hours and 15 minutes... I was like, OK, someone’s going to lose their temper and some chairs are going to fly, and… nothing happened. Everyone respects him – everyone knows what has to be done."
So how did it work in performance? Abbado had chosen a programme of Russian music inspired by Shakespeare. Tchaikovsky's "symphonic fantasia" on The Tempest tends to get overlooked in concert programming - I'd never heard it live - perhaps because it's confused with his even earlier overture The Storm, based on Ostrovsky's Katya Kabanova play; but Abbado has recorded it twice and it features in a film on the Berlin Philharmonic's website (see a rather bizarrely chosen excerpt on the video below). You'd have thought a 19th-century piece of programme music could hardly touch the sublime, but Abbado, the Prospero of the conducting world, conjured sounds uniquely his from the first magical bars depicting the sea-lapped island full of ethereal noises. It helped that the combined Rome and Bologna forces featured 24 first violins rather than the usual maximum 18 and 10 double basses; moreover the enormous state-of-the-art Sala Santa Cecilia in the Parco della Musica concert-hall complex not only easily accommodated perhaps its largest orchestra on the wide platform but surrounded us with this ineffable supernatural buzzing.
Watch an excerpt from Abbado conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in Tchaikovsky's The Tempest
Tchaikovsky has been reproached for overloading the brave new world of Miranda and Ferdinand with an ache they'd never possess; but his autobiographical love music is at its finest here, Abbado creating shot silk out of the violas' and cellos' tumbling counterpoint to the main theme and, at the climax, wrenching away violins and horns in a stark unison worthy of the Shostakovich to come. Ariel played ever so briefly with the barely audible yet intense pianissimo of which this conductor is supremely capable, Caliban cavorted, Prospero broke his power and the quiet ending left us silent and amazed. Odd to accord another "great performance" label to such a piece, but there it was.
Rome has a habit of throwing up "only connects". I'd been racking my brains to think of a Shakespeare connection I could hunt out in my afternoon there before the concert, but serendipity did it for me: the airport bus arrived unexpectedly at Ostiense station (Sunday is closed-to-traffic time in the city, leaving tourists and tacky musicians to take the place of the vehicles which usually roar up to and around the Colosseum). So there was the Pyramid of Cestius gleaming white in the autumn sun, and behind it a favourite - perhaps the favourite - Roman haunt of mine which I haven't seen in years, the so-called English or rather acattolica cemetery with its well-fed cats and locals happily picnicking on benches before the 1pm closure.
Keats is buried there as "one whose name is writ in water", in a quiet corner of the more open, park-like area, and so is the heart of Shelley, who had written that "it might make one in love with death to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place". And written in turn on his gravestone is... an inscription from The Tempest (pictured left). As if that weren't enough, Mauro Buccarelli, the Accademia's "artistic secretary", later told me he was born in the village close to where Shelley set sail on his last, fatal expedition.
But it's probably time to move on from sea-tempests to the equally terrifying natural phenomena of King Lear. Kozintsev's 1971 film is perhaps the greatest Shakespeare homage on screen - I'd be hard pressed to choose between it and the same director's earlier Hamlet - and like that equal masterpiece it has one of the most harrowing of film scores, Walton and Prokofiev notwithstanding. Abbado is known to be a great film buff - on seeing Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon, he raised the possibility with the director of collaborating on a production of Berg's Wozzeck - and though he hasn't featured Shostakovich very often in his programmes, he compiled a sequence of 43 numbers for Berlin drawn not only from the composer's film score but also from his music for Kozintsev's stage production of 1941.
A big problem loomed in Rome, though, where the bold decision was taken to incorporate a big screen and scenes from the film. It's a hard enough task to synchronise live music with the images for which it was intended. This is an art in itself. In that sense, an experienced film-music master like Carl Davis is going to find it easier than a conductor like Abbado whose greatest quality is his freedom of phrasing, his rubato - though all praise to his enquiring mind for following a time code and a screen as well as marshalling an orchestra and chorus (pictured above right). But add the problems of grafting onto rather confusing excerpts from the Kozintsev film numbers from the theatrical incidental music which were never intended for the cinema, and you have a nightmare scenario.
Scenes which Kozintsev would never have dreamed of having Shostakovich underscore, like Cordelia's request of "nothing" in the kingdom-carving scene, now got swamped - in this instance, by a very beautiful song for our heroine from the play, well delivered by Anna Caterina Antonacci. And the voices on the soundtrack, which came and went, were poorly reproduced. No one could deliver the Fool's songs, with their bony percussion glitter anticipating the 15th Symphony's enigmatic death rattles, better than a Russian bass-baritone much favoured by Abbado, Anatoli Kotscherga; but they just didn't fit with the impish character on the screen. The film's final apocalyptic sequence, with its unaccompanied Dies Irae-ish chorus, is the one swathe where this kind of live coordination can work - and the professional Accademia di Santa Cecilia proved their superlative mettle here - but even the ending wasn't right; it's much more lean and desolate in the film.
So next time Abbado would be well advised to stick, as he did in Berlin, to the sound-only sequence, with perhaps a few film stills and possibly a spoken narrative. The orchestra was impeccable, from Maria Francesca Latella's plangent Fool's-pipe clarinet to the polished roar of brass; what newcomers to the film saw of Kozintsev's work impressed them. But the two elements were at war throughout. The peace, though, came in the form of a rather lovely benediction from much-esteemed Giorgio Napolitano, the Italian republic's only Communist President to date, to whom Abbado had dedicated the concert, and who came down at the end to shake the other great man's hand (pictured above). What a far cry from the rather hilarious scenes - watchable on YouTube - of amateur music-makers singing Handel's "Hallelujah" Chorus on the evening of Berlusconi's departure. Well, things may be slow to pick up again after Italy's recent dark age, but the healthy state of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, now indisputably one of the world's great orchestras, is one good augury for the future. I have the feeling that Abbado will want to come back and conduct the players again soon, if he has the time and the energy, now he knows how good they are. Evviva.
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