Opera + Classical Music Reviews

LSO /Jansen /Pappano review – Barber, Boulanger and Rachmaninov

14 April 2024


London Symphony Orchestra under Antonio Pappano deliver sensuous accounts of romantic works from the 20th century at the Barbican.

LSO/Pappano

LSO & Antonio Pappano (Photo: Andy Paradise)

Antonio Pappano’s conducting style is certainly full of physical drama – he practically dances to the music, the while stamping, huffing and fizzing – and it’s on display much more now that, since becoming LSO’s Chief Conductor Designate, he has exchanged the orchestra pit at Covent Garden for the podium at the Barbican. It’s sometimes a bit of a mystery how everything holds together amid all these theatrics, as while, for quiet, rhythmic passages, his beat is precise, during the loud, broader material there are just expansive circling motions in his right hand. There is clearly something at work, though – whether it be LSO’s consummate musicianship, a lot of rehearsal work, or some holistic gestalt consciousness – as Sunday evening’s performances at Barbican Hall were not only brilliantly co-ordinated, but Pappano and the orchestra extracted every ounce of emotional intensity from the three works, resulting in well-deserved and lengthy applause at the concert’s close.

Lili Boulanger’s 1918 D’un matin de printemps is a gorgeous Impressionist miniature whose orchestral colours are painted in gouache. Pappano and the orchestra paid due attention to this, bringing out its mercurial shifts of tempo, dynamic and texture with the lightest of touches, from the opening sparkles of celeste and triangle through the pops of bright colour from the brief instrumental solo passages to the rhythmic close with its fairy-tale whoosh of a harp glissando.

Samuel Barber’s violin concerto was written in 1939, and while its harmonic underlay sometimes makes a nod to 20th century Modernism, there’s a lushness to its character (particularly in its melodic drive) that not only harks back to the 19th century, but also pulls in the open intervals familiar from works by Copland and others of Barber’s generation, making it firmly American.

The orchestra’s response to all this was generally good, and here Pappano coaxed, for the first time – but not the last – some gloriously honeyed textures from them in their ‘ripieno’ sections: not only in the rich string passages, but in the haunting oboe and horn tones at start of the second movement, and in the warmth of the brass and woodwind choruses throughout. It wasn’t all syrup, though: there was sprightly energy in the skipping passages of the first movement, and the busy, short bow strokes in the moto perpetuo third movement (which was taken at a cracking pace) were sharp, precise and accurate, and, thanks to Sérgio Pires’ masterly playing, the clarinet solo in the first movement was as sprightly and folksy as you’d want. Placing the first and second violins opposite each other was a master stroke, allowing their echoing exchanges in the first movement to sing out.

“Pappano coaxed, for the first time – but not the last – some gloriously honeyed textures from them…”

LSO/Jansen/Pappano

LSO, Antonio Pappano & Janine Jansen (Photo: Andy Paradise)

Janine Jansen gave an excellent account of the solo, that was well considered for its emotional impact, albeit that the large orchestral forces behind her didn’t always agree. She approached the expansive opening melody with more delicacy than some do, and it’s a little unfortunate that it was occasionally a bit swamped: really, this section should have the feel of almost a chamber work, and the orchestra was a touch heavy-handed – similarly in the lilting material later on in the movement. Where the violin ‘has the floor’, though, her subtle approach to the concerto shone through and we were treated to some magnificently quiet high held notes in the first movement, the summoning of genuine disquiet in the low double-stopped angular passages in the second, and some bravura flourishes in the third. Perhaps the only cavil is that, like not a few violinists, Jansen remains somewhat self-absorbed in her playing, and while the sound she produces is lovely, there’s barely an acknowledgement of the presence of an audience. Boulanger’s Nocturne for violin and piano (the latter played by Pappano) made for a charming encore.

Sergei Rachmaninov’s second symphony is not only stuffed full of tunes, but the wobble and sob, the fire and fury – the whole panoply of voluptuous romanticism – are set to max. About Pappano and LSO’s account there is little to say, except that here was the kind of performance you’d want to box up and have at home for those emotional evenings on the sofa with a bottle of wine and a box of tissues to hand. Every nuance was expertly judged for tempo, volume and timbre: the slow expressive opening (and the intense throb of the low strings that defines it); the ballsy swagger at the beginning of the second movement; the application of just the right amount of rubato for the violin theme that opens the third movement (and the slow waves of dynamic build and decay thereafter); the tone and expressiveness for the clarinet solo; the brash opening and brisk tempo of the final movement, and the precise taps of rhythm therein. In short, this was an account played for all the feels.


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