Performances by Antonio Pappano are always something to hear, and his concert with the London Symphony Orchestra was a thrilling ride through music of the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries.
What pleased most was the playing of the LSO suffice to say, this was as captivating a performance as they have given all year.
Pappano meanwhile guided the universally committed players through every difficulty of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov with a typically meticulous ear for accuracy and a fiery passion that suited the scores perfectly.
Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini was the ideal opener violent, wildly emotional and fiendishly taxing: it requires the firmest hand and this it had from the Royal Opera’s Music Director. The opening Wagnerian snarls of low strings and brass found a fire in the double basses and celli; violins displayed their astonishing range of expression and mercurial precision throughout. Climaxes were crisp and deafening; their build-up architecturally superb.
In the central section, the gorgeous love music soared with violin and cello lines of the utmost poignancy. Pappano lost momentum a couple of times here in his quest for beauty of sound, but such was this beauty that it hardly mattered. Tchaikovsky composed the work in 1876 as an orchestral take on the tale from Dante’s Inferno. This performance found all the hellish fire and awesome stormy anger in the final climax, where whirling chromatics and monumental brass cries overpowered the senses.
Though the air took a while to adjust to the reduced orchestral forces in Saint-Sans’s Second Piano Concerto, this was an equally startling performance. Even the frivolous, operetta-styled second movement had a solid case made for it by pianist Simon Trpceski, who revelled in the jaunty melodies and amusing antiphonies between soloist and orchestra. The solo opening to the Andante sostenuto showed Trpceski’s firm touch and alert ear for pedalling. The piano did seem to have an unusually metallic edge in it but, if anything, this contributed to the sense of fun on the platform.
Every phrase was shaped; every dynamic was fantastically judged; every rhythm was in place, even when the demanding intricacies of the Presto threatened to prove just a bit too much. Pappano provided the most sensitively hued accompaniment in the first two movements, but the LSO had a tendency to be too loud in the third, submerging Trpceski’s delicate shaping beneath weighty string pedals. Nevertheless, the audience loved it and the encore of Mendelssohn was absolutely lovely.
And then, Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances were often inspired and always tremendously well played. The brass in particular produced the most scintillatingly firm and garishly ringing passages, especially at the climax of the Allegro vivace, where the majestic music-making tumbling from every orchestral section made time seem to stand still. The Non allegro‘s central section was given especially sensuous treatment opening with a dappled lake of woodwind and culminating in one of the huge Rachmaninov tunes that enveloped the orchestra in its warmth. The ghostly, Mahlerian Waltz of the second movement was not quite so successful, for while textures were suitably mysterious, Pappano did not delineate the rhythm clearly enough. But then the vast final movement found itself poised eloquently between the weighty statements of the outer sections and an unusually bleak centre.
With Christmas bringing the usual deluge of carol concerts and ‘best bits’ selections, this was an unmissable evening of quality music, and yet another confirmation that the LSO are London’s and probably Britain’s finest orchestra.