An unusual concert of non-opera works by Italian opera composers
The London Symphony Orchestra and London Symphony Chorus were joined by soloists Benjamin Bernheim and Gerald Finley and conductor Sir Antonio Pappano on Sunday evening for an unusual concert of non-opera works by Italian opera composers.
Pappano has endeared himself to audiences and singers alike as a conductor who absolutely understands opera. Watching him on a concert platform, though, is a distressing experience: he emotes to the music, with direction sometimes taking second place; there’s a deal of hissing, fizzing and grunting (and, on one occasion, singing). Although his dynamic indications are obvious, it’s difficult to see how the performers, at times, get much help with tempo; perhaps it happens by osmosis, because, as the emotion of the music intensifies, the beat in his right hand becomes more and more lavish and wayward (at one point he managed to break his baton); there were a couple of moments in the Puccini – notably a change into triple-time – when the chorus stumbled, lacking a clear beat.
All that said, there were some cracking performances. It was a change to hear some Ponchielli that wasn’t La Gioconda, and the Elegia is a pleasant piece full of the expected tropes: swooping low strings over a harp; a sad little oboe solo; some angry brass. It’s a bit of an exercise in form until the arrival of a gloriously lush melody towards the end, to which the LSO’s string section gave all their attention.
Verdi was ambiguous towards his string quartet, written to fill time during a delay in preparations for a performance of Aida; indeed, his reaction to a request to perform it with a full string section (as in Sunday’s performance) was along the lines of ‘it can only improve it’. It’s a charming piece, though, and by and large, the LSO gave it a good rendering. There were some initial problems with intonation in the violins (particularly in some of the high, quiet passages of the first movement), but these settled down. The waltz of the second movement was nicely nuanced, and the light and shade in the third movement (including a delicious cello solo) were brought out to perfection. The orchestra reserved the best of its technical brilliance, though, for the rapid, wall-of-death contrapuntal passages in the final movement, which were brought off with the élan that the LSO musters so well.
Puccini’s Messa di Gloria is an odd work. It feels almost as though the young Puccini, full of glorious melodic ideas, chose the wrong text. The lengthy melodic passage in ‘gratias agimus’ requires the tenor to keep repeating the words over and over to make them fit. The opening of the ‘Gloria’ is a ridiculously overblown fanfare-accompanied nursery-rhyme tune that would suit a comic military scene well, but seems out of place in a religious work.
The orchestra and chorus, though, turned in a brilliant performance whose dynamic colours were very well observed: the wall-of-sound at the opening of ‘Credo’; the perfect intonation and solidity of the bass section for ‘qui tollis’ (and the light, mezza-voce touch from the sopranos in their repetition of it); the crisply observed sudden diminuendo and swell at the close of the movement; the basses were also on form for ‘Crucifixus’. The fugal material throughout was well handled, Pappano, here, supplying some rare precise direction for entries.
Bernheim’s voice is perfect for the work, full of power, accuracy, purity and a dramatic-Italian turbo-charge that made ‘Gratias’ and ‘Et incarnatus’ an utter delight to listen to. The baritone, sadly, gets little to do, but Finley’s mellifluous tones blended perfectly with those of Bernheim for the all-too-quickly-over ‘Agnus Dei’.