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S & H Concert Review

Bernstein, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky; Dmitri Alexeev (pf) London Symphony Orchestra, Antonio Pappano (conductor) Barbican Centre, 4th February 2004 (AR)

Covent Garden’s Music Director Antonio Pappano’s moonlighting with the London Symphony Orchestra has produced some highly memorable concerts and tonight’s was one of them.

His well-balanced programme opened with Leonard Bernstein’s rather light-weight three movement Chichester Psalms, commissioned by the Dean of Chichester Cathedral in 1965. Pappano conducted the opening Awake, psaltery and harp, with great flamboyancy, his right foot constantly tapping, his stabbing hand gestures enticing rhythmically taut, jazzy playing from the LSO, producing an appropriate, somewhat brutish intensity. However, the music itself sounded rather hollow and contrived, with its crude allusions to Orff. In the more climactic moments there was a degree of distortion and congestion due in part to the conductor’s extreme dynamic range being let down by the Barbican Hall’s rather claustrophobic acoustic.

His setting of Psalm 23, The Lord is my shepherd, was cringe-makingly schmalzty, only redeemed by the assured treble solo of David Stark, who projected his pristine voice eloquently and with great clarity. The closing Lord, Lord, my heart is not haughty was by far the most moving and successful of the psalms. Here the LSO strings produced an extraordinary depth of tone and expression, while the LSO Chorus were hypnotic, with evocations of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony seeping through.

Dmitri Alexeev was a late substitute for an indisposed Mikhail Pletnev and proved to be a very worthy replacement in the fiendishly difficult Prokofiev Third Piano Concerto in C major Op.26. Alexeev and Pappano were in total accord in their perception of this overtly savage, primordial score. Alexeev’s multifaceted playing produced a vast range of sounds from brittle to metallic, delicate to rugged, perfectly complemented and matched by the LSO. Notably exciting were the raucous and shrilly pointed woodwind interspersed with the pianist’s spiky playing.

In the slow movement Alexeev switched into a more sombre mood taking on a sparse, stark fragrance, with the LSO again producing sympathetic, atmospheric accompaniment. In the concluding Allegro the pianist again shifted gear, his fragile playing producing a glistening array of sounds; the concluding buoyant passages had such ferocious energy it felt as if the pianist and orchestra were bursting at the seams, pouring out a cornucopia of sound: this was an electrifying, high frequency performance.

Tchaikovsky’s ‘Pathétique’ was an ideal piece for Pappano as it is that composer’s most ‘operatic’ of orchestral scores. It may be no mere coincidence that some of the greatest performances of this dramatic symphony have been given by conductors famed for their work in the opera house - Toscanini, Furtwängler, Kleiber and Klemperer; Pappano’s moving account seemed to reinforce this tradition.

The opening, brooding bars of the Andante were perfectly paced, the conductor setting the mood magnificently, with the strings assuming a grainy darkness. The climactic ‘despair’ development section was deeply intense, with the brass in particular having a ferocious cutting edge to their playing. After this nerve shattering experience Pappano seamlessly switched pace, with the closing bars taking on a majestic and melancholic mood. The following waltz was conducted with a lilting grace but with dark and gloomy undertones. Often this movement can seem too decorative and lightweight, but Pappano teased out the inherent darkness and an uncanny brooding sense of menace and impending doom; a waltz in a twilit minefield. Likewise, the March can often sound merely bombastic and pompous but Pappano invested it with true theatrical panache. The LSO excelled themselves with the vivacity of their playing with brass and bass drum being particularly effective.

The concluding Adagio lamentoso is often played far too slowly, to wring out the emotions – Bernstein comes to mind. Here, however, Pappano took it at a faster pace, yet sacrificed nothing in terms of intensity and poignancy. There was a sense of urgent, nervous energy to the haunting melody, rather than a doom laden, dreary dirge. Pappano conducted with great expressivity, with the concluding passages from the ‘cellos and double basses throbbing into infinity.

Such was the intensity of this extraordinarily operatic performance there were several seconds of silence before the audience erupted into well-deserved applause.

Alex Russell






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