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Seen and Heard Concert Review

Bernstein, Shostakovich, Rachmaninov: Han-Na Chang (cello), London Symphony Orchestra, Antonio Pappano (conductor), Barbican Centre, 22 May, 2005 (AR)


Antonio Pappano and the London Symphony Orchestra’s beautifully balanced programme started with Leonard Bernstein’s highly evocative Symphonic Suite – On The Waterfront. Bernstein’s film and theatre music is paradoxically far more inventive and interesting that his so-called ‘serious’ music – his symphonies and orchestral works, for Bernstein is essentially a man of the theatre rather than a composer of symphonies. On The Waterfront was given an inspired performance by Pappano and the LSO. This is true ‘mood music’ which paints the grim scenes and suggests the violent characters of the film with pictorial perfection via its orchestral motifs and moods. The percussion in particular really let their hair down and played with great panache and aplomb whilst the saccharine strings had that appropriate suave ‘MGM orchestra’ type sound. The suite ended with a cascade of carnivalesque sounds with the two timpanists playing in unison – the measured, stroked timpani sounding uncannily like the closing bars of Mahler’s Third Symphony.

A two-time Grammy nominee and ‘best seller’, Korean cellist Han-Na Chang gave the most extraordinarily versatile and volatile performance I have ever heard of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto no. 1 in E flat major, Op. 107 (1959). Chang’s highly charged, electrifying account dispelled the tired cliché that it needs a Russian soloist to bring out the depth and passion of this profound score.

Her electrifying and revelatory interpretation put her intense playing leagues ahead of any other cellist in this difficult concerto by its sheer range of sounds and moods. She played the Allegretto with an appropriately aggressive attack, producing rugged and raw, grainy and gutsy sounds. Here her tone can best be described as ‘beautifully-ugly’ - a paradox of sound that is the hallmark of Shostakovich’s scores - as it is with Mahler’s. Here her mood had a sarcastic and acidic humour to it, accompanied by wonderful solos from a raucous horn and shrill spiky flute. Pappano proved to be an instinctive conductor of this composer, teasing out angular and jagged rhythms and metallic, brittle sounds from the virtuosi of the LSO.

In the Moderato her reserved playing had an eerie distant starkness producing sublime sounds, perfectly paced by Pappano. In the ghostly closing lullaby passages accompanied by a starry celesta her cello produced delicate wisps of faint sighs. In the physically and emotionally demanding unaccompanied solo Cadenza, Chang took her cello to the limit of its endurance– and then it happened: snap! “It was the G-string!!!” announced Chang and she swiftly exited accompanied by sympathetic laughs and applause from the audience. She quickly resumed the Cadenza without causing a break in the extreme tension of the performance: if anything her playing became even more expressive, stern and dark. She played the concluding Finale: Allegro con moto with great gusto, punctuated by cutting woodwind and incisive timpani thumps, all conducted with a wild frenzy.

Chang and Pappano had absolute rapport throughout and it was a pity this ‘live’ electrifying performance was not recorded – despite or maybe even because of - the break half way through it! The good news is that it will be her next planned recording with the same forces: a recording to watch out for.

Like Chang’s hypnotic performance of the Shostakovich, Pappano’s reading of Sergei Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony in E minor, Op. 27 had a mesmerising hold over the capacity house from beginning to end. Since André Previn’s celebrated recording of the score with the LSO this has – in a sense – become that orchestra’s own symphony and they can play it instinctively; Pappano had absolute control over the structure of the score and integrated all four movements into a unified whole.

The warm, deep ‘cello tone of the opening of the Largo set the dark brooding tone and gloomy mood of the movement. With the Allegro Pappano conducted with sweeping gestures and balletic movements making the music flow with a fresh breeziness and an underlying pulsating urgency. In the Allegro molto the rhythms were jagged and buoyant, with the brass appropriately strident and gruff contrasted with sweet strings in the lyrical moments of melancholia. Here the percussion were incisive without ever sounding brash.

The Adagio was wonderfully measured and conducted with a graceful elegance and played with an eloquent simplicity; the strings were seductively sweet without ever sounding smaltzy: Pappano carefully avoided milking any over-sentimental ‘soulfulness’ that this movement sometimes inspires.

Pappano brought a sense of urgent tension and thrusting drive to the concluding Allegro vivace. His sweeping elegant gestures produced buoyant taut rhythms and highly expressive playing from the LSO. As the movement marched forward the tension became tighter and playing ever more urgent and intense with the closing bars ending in a glorious haze of jubilation.

Pappano and the LSO received rapturous applause from an attentive audience. This was a wonderful evening of world-class music making. I hope to see Pappano with the LSO much more often.

Alex Russell

Further listening:

Bernstein: On the Waterfront – Symphonic Suite, Westside Story – Symphonic Dances, Fancy Free, Candide Overture: New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Leonard Bernstein (conductor): Sony: 63085.

Shostakovich: Cello Concerto No 1, Opus 107; Bloch: Schelomo; Lynn Harrell (cello); Concertgebouw Orchestra, Bernard Haitink (conductor): Decca 414 162-2.

Rachmaninov: Symphony No 2 in E minor, Op 27; Isle of the Dead, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Lorin Maazel (conductor): DDG: Classikon 445 130-2.

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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)