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S & H Concert Review

Richard Strauss, Tod und Verklärung, Horn Concerto No.2, Ein Heldenleben, David Pyatt (horn), London Symphony Orchestra, Antonio Pappano, Barbican, 1st February 2004 (MB)

Antonio Pappano is a gifted conductor, although after his 30 minute traversal through Strauss’ Tod und Verklärung one might have concluded that his gift for clarity of phrasing (so beautifully articulated in the opera house) had all but deserted him. So clearly was the sound he elicited from the London Symphony Orchestra emerging from the bottom strings and brass that it was almost impossible to hear the violins. He is not entirely to blame; the LSO’s playing throughout this piece was tentative at least, unbalanced at worst.

The performance started promisingly (many do not), the irregular timpani and string figures given a lilting pulse suggestive of a heartbeat. But the very broadness of Pappano’s Largo, which Strauss maintains until figure D (bar 52), brought with it problems of elucidation: flute and oboes, for example, were simply not incisive enough in their dolce marking to bring colour to the playing. When the change of tempo did arrive for the allegro section it had a neurotic edge to it that sat uncomfortably with Pappano’s long-breathed view of the preceding section. Taken at a rollercoaster speed it really missed that elemental – but human - savagery that Strauss asks for. Problems surfaced too in the central section of the work; the high D on the violins was less floated than forced, and the passionate love scene was marred by an injudicious orchestral balance that submerged the soaring string melody under the horror of what follows. What was outstanding, however, was the way Pappano shaped the closing pages with death totally and utterly extinguished in the most transfigured of ways.

A much-reduced orchestra found themselves on much more comfortable ground in Strauss’ Horn Concerto No.2, played by the LSO’s Principal Horn, David Pyatt. The performance was outstanding with Pyatt producing beautifully subtle playing, rich in colour and secure in intonation. Pappano’s gift for balance returned (and indeed was not to desert him for the rest of the concert) as he drew from the LSO richly Mozartian textures that contrasted beautifully with Pyatt’s honeyed playing.

Superb as the performance of the Horn Concerto was, it had the misfortune to sit beside a performance of Ein Heldenleben that was simply staggering. Magnificently played, highly dramatic, volatile as well as poetic, it had nothing missing. From its heroic opening to the plangency of the closing movement Pappano persuaded the London Symphony Orchestra to meet every technical and creative challenge. Using his hands as if moulding clay, he drew the warmest sound from the ‘cellos and the most rounded glow from the brass. Dynamically, the range was huge with crescendos mightily thrown off (though a tendency to end each with an equally mighty ritardando seemed over-ebullient rather than echt Straussian). In short, a triumph.

Antonio Pappano returns to the LSO on Wednesday in performances of Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony. His Strauss concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 2nd February at 7.30pm.

Marc Bridle





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