tue 13/11/2018

Prom 37, Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Pappano review – order, and delight, out of chaos | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 37, Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Pappano review – order, and delight, out of chaos

Prom 37, Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Pappano review – order, and delight, out of chaos

Sir Antonio encourages his Romans to make the most of cosmic, and human, drama

Show time: Sir Antonio Pappano and the Santa Cecilia orchestraAll images by Chris Christodoulou/BBC

In the beginning, Sir Antonio Pappano created a little chaos of his own. At the outset of this Prom that saw musical shape and form emerge out of primeval aural disorder or ruinous destruction, the conductor chose to elide the opener – the representation of “Chaos” from Haydn’s Creation – with centenary birthday-boy Leonard Bernstein’s First Symphony. You could see his point, in a programme that climaxed with Mahler’s First to offer a trio of trail-blazing pieces that hammer something out of nothing, beauty from the void.

Yet this pause-less slide from Haydn’s astonishing reinvention of the Classical sonata form to Bernstein’s youthful display of both raw talent and high seriousness still felt like a gimmick. It was fascinating to hear the orchestra of Rome’s Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia – Pappano’s joint home for a dozen years, along with Covent Garden – mould Haydn’s six minutes of quiet revolution with such poise and clarity, as one instrumental creature after another pops its head through the harmonic black hole of the strings. Extraordinary music for 1796 – or 2018, and conveyed with a conviction that left you hungry for the next chapter. 

Then a sudden, ear-wrenching shift plunged us straight into the “Jeremiah” Symphony, with its sinister echoes of a world that – at the moment of its composition in 1942 – had come as close to utter inhuman chaos than at any stage in recorded history. Bernstein draws, albeit indirectly, on motifs from the Jewish liturgical music he knew from childhood in three anguished movements that culminate in a setting for mezzo-soprano of the Lamentations of the prophet Jeremiah. As a concert conductor, Pappano has more than a little of the Bernstein touch. He coaxed from the Santa Cecilians an account of the symphony that paid equal attention to its moral weightiness and its unabashed theatricality. If we kept one foot in shul, the other edged towards Broadway (indeed, Bernstein's On the Town premiered, like the “Jeremiah”, in 1944). 

From the keening high woodwinds to thunderous brass, the purely orchestral sections – “Prophecy” and “Profanation” – have a restless, dissonant drive that veer closer to Stravinsky than the sound-world of Bernstein’s early mentor, Aaron Copland. The anxious syncopations of “Profanation” also hint at some bluesy inferno, and the Italians relished the very American grain of this music. In the slow “Lamentation”, sustained by the Santa Cecilians’ warm and solid strings, the US mezzo Elizabeth DeShong (pictured below) voiced the sorrows of Jerusalem with a striking sense of dignity and tragedy alike. She projected a sort of muscular grief. DeShong commanded the hall, and sumptuously filled it, but her strength never hardened into stridency. Like the Mahler to come, the “Jeremiah” – composed in the darkest days of genocidal warfare – sometimes forces you to ask at what point transcendence blurs into melodrama (or vice versa). Here, Bernstein’s swerves into sweetness, even sentiment, felt not like lapses of taste but redeeming evidence of humanity and hope. The Santa Cecilians did him proud. Mahler himself once conducted the venerable Rome orchestra. More recently, their vibrant and refreshing recording, with Pappano, of his Sixth symphony has won many friends. In this repertoire they can attract, and have to dispel, lazy national stereotypes – as if it were the destiny of every Italian ensemble to morph into an opera band. In the First, they were hardly histrionic – but vividly dramatic? Undeniably. Above all, this performance communicated openly and directly, with an impact and intensity abetted by Pappano’s flourishes of podium showmanship (shades of Bernstein again). From the seven-octave spread of the opening A across the hushed strings, interrupted by the dawn chorus of the clarinets and offstage trumpets, Mahler’s rebirth of Nature took place on a brightly spotlit stage. If other outfits might deliver a richer, maybe more refined, sound, Pappano’s forces ensured that the panoply of calls, chirrups, rustles and murmurs that punctuate the first movement never lost an overarching sense of lilting flow. Pappano paced the development to heighten each contrast and relish each surprise, as the reinvigorated forces of chaos threatened to drown the lyricism of the song-theme taken from the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. The final climax, with heroic brass abounding, delivered a real coup de théâtre.

The waltz-time Ländler of the scherzo boasted a delicious swagger and cheek. The Romans knew how to enjoy themselves, and to make high spirits dance. As an antidote to more solemn and introspective Mahlerian interpretations, it all went down a treat. Occasionally, you missed fine detail and keyhole precision in quieter passages – for instance, as the bass and cellos tread gingerly through the first bars of the “Frère Jacques” canon (“Bruder Martin” in Mahler's German version) that begins the third movement. However, the woodwinds of the village klezmer band that weaves its merry way into this “Hunter’s Funeral” procession were a joy. In the delirious finale, which mount its own frenetic battle between the armies of order and chaos, damnation and salvation, Pappano could let rip. He unleashed not just Stürm und Drang, but shock and awe. 

The fourth-movement love theme in the strings lacked nothing in the way of full-blooded emotionalism (again, Bernstein would have applauded) while the brass attacked their fanfares with a splendid swagger. If you come to Mahler for mystic intuition, perhaps better not try the Rome address. In the end, sheer delight reigned here, and the powers of darkness slunk away as sonic sunlight blazed. Pappano’s Mahler, like Bernstein’s, feels no need to apologise for dashes of schmaltz or touches of kitsch. Fun, as much as faith, overcomes the terrors of chaos. And, suitably enough, the encores opted for unashamed playfulness: after the comely Renaissance pastiche of one of Respighi’s “Ancient Airs and Dances” suite, we galloped crazily through the William Tell overture. For all the grave matters invoked by Haydn, Bernstein and Mahler, this was an evening of infectiously enthusiastic, convivial musicianship rather than a night (sorry…) for the lone arranger. 

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