I used mostly my ears

a blog about music by Marc Haegeman


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Total Liszt

Franz Liszt:
Sposalizio, S161/1 (orch. Salvatore Sciarrino)
Totentanz, S126
A Faust Symphony, S108

Alice Sara Ott, piano
Brenden Gunnell, tenor
Gentlemen of the London Symphony Chorus, Simon Halsey, chorus director
London Symphony Orchestra, Antonio Pappano
Barbican Hall, London, 26 November 2017

Come to think of it, concerts devoted to a single composer – jubilees and special anniversaries notwithstanding – are quite unusual. The well-considered “Total Liszt” program from the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano gave ample proof that evenings like this do work and make perfect sense. “Total Liszt” put the Hungarian composer in a propitious light, offering variety, a discovery, but above all outstanding music-making and plenty of thrills.

Franz Liszt

Franz Liszt

The discovery came in the shape of Sposalizio, originally the sublime opening part of Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage, Second Year: Italy for solo piano, yet here in a 2015 orchestration by the Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino (1947-). By using a modernist, sophisticated instrumentation (including bells and glockenspiel), Sciarrino pulls the work resolutely towards himself, yet the result is that the graceful evocation of the Marriage of the Virgin, as Liszt saw it in Raphael’s painting in Milan, ends up somewhere in modern-day Cinema Paradiso. Plenty of attention-grabbing sonic effects (piccolo and bass clarinet joining forces), with some weird pauses thrown in, and you were listening to the sound rather than the content. Although intently and lovingly performed by Pappano and the LSO, Sposalizio in Sciarrino-style was something of an oddity.

The following Totentanz grabbed the attention as well, but for very different reasons. Liszt’s fascination with death and the diabolical, partly fueled by his traveling and interest in arts, never found a more frightening expression as in this short work for piano and orchestra, adroitly variegating the Dies irae theme, as well as pushing the limits of harmony and piano technique. The Totentanz was given a knockout performance by pianist Alice Sara Ott. Appearing in a black gown, as if dressed for an infernal ball, she left little doubt she wanted to have a great time. And so did we.

The Totentanz has been in Ott’s repertory for some years and it’s clear she knows how to bring it with devastating impact. Her innate classical poise prevents her from pushing the piece over the edge, yet it’s exactly this flirting with the abyss which makes the Totentanz such an exciting ride. Alternately burning and melting the piano, she delivered the ferocious runs (including these jaw-dropping glissandos) with breathtaking speed, articulation and clarity, while the reflective moment in the fourth variation acquired a mesmerizing beauty in her hands. This was death equally creepy as well as beguiling. A close connection with Pappano and the LSO in great form added to the overall excitement and success. Alice Sara Ott received a thunderous applause and returned with a contrasting encore, the C-sharp minor Nocturne from Chopin in a ravishing gossamer delivery.

As rarely performed in the concert-hall as the Totentanz is the Faust Symphony in its complete 1857 version, including the finale with tenor solo and male-voice choir. Antonio Pappano offered overall a fine, often very beautiful, if eventually not entirely convincing reading of the Faust Symphony. Focused, attentive to every detail, coherently shaped and without a single drop in tension, the first two movements stood out: Faust appeared as a wild, edgy and volatile character, while Gretchen breathed tenderness and innocence to delight. Mephistopheles however would have benefited from more abandon and profounder work on the instrumental color. Perhaps it was the onslaught of the preceding Totentanz still fresh in mind, or simply the emphasis of the first movement which made Mephistopheles sound somewhat underwhelming. But in any case the contrast between the outer movements was too little pronounced, with Faust appearing as vivid and unsettling as his diabolic reflection. The “Chorus mysticus” finale, adding a spiritual dimension to the human conflicts evoked in the symphony, was however properly grand and powerful, with splendid vocal contributions from the American tenor Brenden Gunnell and gents from the London Symphony Chorus.

The playing of the LSO was a constant pleasure this evening, nary a weak link in the ensemble. With his detailed approach and care for orchestral balance, Pappano capitalized on the divided strings of the massive ensemble, highlighting the often brilliant writing of the symphony. Nowhere more so as in Gretchen, where Liszt at times reduces the orchestral forces to a chamber music scale. The admirable LSO woodwinds, especially Bobby Cheng’s oboe and Adam Walker’s flute, often in dialogue with groups of or even solo strings, always set the proper tone and atmosphere.

“Total Liszt” was a superb evening. Alice Sara Ott’s performance of the Totentanz was in a class of its own and in spite of some minor quibbles, A Faust Symphony remained a remarkable achievement as well. Running well over 70 minutes the symphony can be a daunting prospect, yet performances of such constant high quality as here by Pappano and the LSO are liable to convince you it has to be this way. The label of “heavenly length”, as in the case of Schubert’s later works, wouldn’t be inappropriate.

Copyright © 2017 Marc Haegeman


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Italian tribute

Sergei Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43
Ottorino Respighi: Fountains of Rome, Pines of Rome, Roman Festivals

Lise de la Salle, piano
London Symphony Orchestra/Antonio Pappano
London, Barbican Hall, 31 January 2016

Two 20th-century composers, Rachmaninoff and Respighi, who by and large preferred to stay away from the atonal modernism of many of their contemporaries, formed the attractive pairing in this concert of the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) under Antonio Pappano. The subject was Italy, whether in Rachmaninoff’s tribute to the Italian violin virtuoso Paganini, or in the fascination of Respighi with the Italian capital.

French pianist Lise de la Salle replaced at short notice the injured Alice Sara Ott in Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. There was much to admire in her pianism even if ampler rehearsal time would undoubtedly have resulted in a more finished performance. Granted, Pappano didn’t make things easy. By his edgy, incisive and hard-driven yet precise approach he immediately made it clear this was a no prisoners event. It took De la Salle a while to settle the balance with the orchestra (she was drowned out in the opening pages) and make it clear she had something to say as well. Her steely fingers ran with admirable speed and articulation through the faster passages. At best it sounded as if soloist and conductor were sparking each other off, although her playing lacked shading and the power and excitement in the latter half of the piece all too often turned into breathlessness. Eventually it were the more introspective variations, where De la Salle’s piano blended with the superb contributions from the LSO soloists, that best demonstrated her musicality. Pappano’s sense of theatre was unfortunately heard at its worst in one of the schmaltziest eruptions in the famous 18th variation I have heard in a long time.

Ottorino Respighi’s three symphonic poems about Rome, composed between 1916 and 1928, weren’t meant to be heard in sequence and it takes some adjustment when doing so in order to avoid aural overkill. Maestro Pappano, whose affection for the music is not a secret, announced he would perform the trilogy in a different order than programmed. Instead of the chronological order he opened with Roman Festivals to conclude with Pines of Rome. To be sure, this setup makes for a more balanced evocation and moreover it allows ending the concert with the irresistible Appian Way march.

While Pappano’s traversal wasn’t without its weaker moments, the LSO was in stunning form throughout, including superb solos from all desks, a rock-solid ensemble, and a quite astonishing transparency in even the most demanding passages. This is spectacular music, but it takes a spectacularly gifted orchestra to tackle it with such jaw-dropping precision, panache and aplomb. And the LSO offered that in spades.

The colorful extravaganzas of Roman society and history were hammered home without any fear of excess or exaggeration by Pappano. Yet this was overall more Fellini’s Rome than Corot’s. Pappano’s heady approach worked best in the Festivals and the Pines of Rome, yet less so in the subtler moments of Fountains. Colors generously splashed all over the Barbican and while Respighi’s aural orgies knocked you out of your seat (as in the Circuses and the Epiphany), eventually I felt Pappano was leaning too much towards a loudness contest, at times sacrificing evocation to the purely demonstrative.

The Fountain of the Valle Giulia at Dawn opening the Fountains started too loud and was in spite of the superb strings and winds playing short on atmosphere. Pappano jumped dynamic markings again in the Triton Fountain by having the horn blasts as loud as the following rush of water. Trevi, too, was uniformly loud, without the surging crescendo, but the closing pages of the Villa Medici at Sunset acquired a feel of ravishing serenity.

In The Pines of Rome one had to admire the orchestral playing in the well-characterized Catacombs and the nocturnal evocation of the Janiculum (magnificent clarinet from Chris Richards), just as much as the very noisy cavorting kids in the Villa Borghese gardens or the deafening steamroller that flattened in a go for broke crescendo the Via Appia, adding superbly realized offstage brass. After all, this was more than anything the LSO’s night. At the end of this concert they could confidently say, paraphrasing the popular Roman line: “Make way, we are the LSO!”

Copyright © 2016, Marc Haegeman

First published on Classical Net  (http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/haegeman/20160131-delasalle-lso-pappano.php)


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Janine Jansen’s Tchaikovsky

Paul Dukas: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
Pyotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D, Op. 35
Robert Schumann: Symphony #4 in D minor, Op. 120

Janine Jansen, violin
Orchestra dell’ Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Rome/Antonio Pappano
Brussels, Centre for Fine Arts, 4 March 2015

It was a packed and enthusiastic Centre for Fine Arts that greeted Sir Antonio Pappano, leading his Roman Orchestra della Santa Cecilia. Their visit guaranteed a notable Italian presence but of course music lovers in Brussels also fondly remember the glory days of the Monnaie Opera when Pappano headed it for some ten years before moving to London’s Royal Opera House in 2002. As it turned out, however, this evening it was Dutch violinist Janine Jansen who quickly became the focal point, delivering the most remarkable performance in an otherwise unremarkable concert.
Read the full review on Classical Net


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Roman Dvořák

Antonín Dvořák: Symphony #9 in E Minor, Op. 95 “From the New World”
Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104

Mario Brunello, cello
Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia – Roma/Antonio Pappano
EMI Classics 914102-2 DDD 2CDs 86:35

Dvorak by Pappano

Antonio Pappano plays Dvořák

Hyped as a “marriage made in heaven”, Antonio Pappano ushered his Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome out of obscurity into the international spotlight. Guided since 2005 by the busy maestro – who combines his Roman post with that of music director of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden – Santa Cecilia embarked upon a series of tours, recording at the same time for EMI Classics popular symphonic works from Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Respighi and Mahler, as well as operas from Rossini and Puccini. Their most recent release bravely pairs two Antonin Dvořák’s warhorses, the 9th Symphony “From the New World” and the Cello Concerto, taped live and assembled from a handful of concerts in Rome in 2011/12.
Read the full review on Classical Net