Prom 4 gave us Londoners a chance to see Antonio Pappano, Music Director of the Royal Opera, perform with his group from Rome, the Academy of Santa Cecilia.
It was a good programme: Berio’s experimental hodgepodge Sinfonia provided ample contrast to Rossini’s almost controversially tuneful interpretation of the Stabat Mater.And if the evening was not a complete success, it was not for lack of trying.
Berio’s work, from the late 1960s, takes the idea of a symphony and skews it. In the five movements, we hear no single purpose, but rather a clash of contrasting sounds and styles. In the second movement, hovering, ambiguously harmonised human voices croon above impatient, impertinent stabs from the orchestra. In the third movement, the centre of the work, a kitchen sink’ array of texts, shards of conversation and Suspiria-esque whispers stand astride a complex orchestral tapestry of musical quotations. And the movement is held within the scaffolding of Mahler’s Scherzo from the Resurrection Symphony. The whole is complex and elusive, but I think very much worth the effort.
Pappano’s reading was carefully prepared. The sets of percussion, divided across the platform, were especially thrilling, and the orchestral textures were intricately and imaginatively wrought. But the Swingle Singers, the vocal group responsible for introducing the work to the Proms back in 1969, were given such low amplification as to be barely audible for much of the running time. That’s often no problem (often they’re doubled by the strings), but in that third movement we need to hear the words. The group sounded fabulous – their use of microtones was especially effective – but it was a wasted opportunity.
In Rossini’s Stabat Mater, the four vocal soloists had to battle with a rather more common problem: the Royal Albert Hall’s unkind acoustic. Tenor Colin Lee (a replacement) made a valiant attempt to project the famous aria Cujus animam into the hall, but in the process his gloriously smooth legato lost a final touch of sweetness. Soprano Janice Watson (another replacement) sang elegantly, but I felt that she tried too hard on the top notes. Ildar Abdrazakov has a resonant and rich bass, especially up above, but he struggled to be heard above the orchestra. Only Joyce DiDonato, the glorious mezzo who was so popular in the Royal Opera’s Barber of Seville last year, stood astride the accompaniment. Hers is an astonishingly rounded, smooth voice that we need to hear much more of.
Pappano, as is typical at the Royal Opera House, was very strong on texture and balance, but here I felt that his phrasing was overly pretty at times. It was his chorus, the Chorus of the Academy of Santa Cecilia, who made me sit up and take note. Their a cappella movement with bass Abdrazakov was superlatively shaped: a model of communication and eloquence. The whole was solid, and but only occasionally engrossing.