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Rossini, Puccini, Respighi, Stravinsky: La Scala Philharmonic Orchestra / Riccardo Chailly (conductor), St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, 14.10.2006 (GPu)

Rossini: Overture, The Thieving Magpie

Puccini, I Crisantemi

Respighi, The Pines of Rome

Stravinsky, The Firebird – Complete Ballet

Having had a heavy workload recently, I arrived for this concert rather weary and wondering whether I would be responsive enough to enjoy it fully. No problem! Once Riccardo Chailly had raised himself on to tiptoe, and imperiously elicited some fiercely crackling sounds from the drums to begin the overture to La Gazza Ladra, tiredness was no problem. The overture was revealed in its full impishness, its wonderful, adroit silliness! The precise control of dynamics was immediately obvious, so too the gorgeous string tone, part of a perfectly balanced orchestral sound (with the brass less prominent than some conductors prefer with Rossini). This was pure joy, playfulness incarnate. It had an absolute, unexaggerated, theatricality – one’s only disappointment was that there wasn’t a curtain that could be raised for us to see and hear the misadventures – and rescue – of Ninetta and Giannetto.


The second item in the programme was also the work of a great Italian master of the musical theatre, Puccini. But this was the orchestral (strings only) version of his 1890 piece for string quartet, I Crisantemi, a work not, of course, written for the theatre – even if the work’s two main themes found their way into the last act of Manon Lescaut two or three years later. After the high jinks of the Rossini, this was a moving elegy occasioned, according to the composer, by the death of Prince Amadeo of Savoy and written in a single night. The controlled lyricism of the La Scala strings – superb throughout the evening – was heard at its best here; the lower strings, in particular, were resonantly expressive. I Crisantemi can only rarely have been played with such unembarrassed poignancy, deeply emotional but with no straining for effect and no overstatement, truly piangendo.


The full orchestra – with three harps, piano, celeste, enhanced percussion section and organ (not forgetting the pre-recorded nightingale) – were back on stage for Respighi’s Pines of Rome. Like Rossini and Puccini, Respighi knew more than a little about the theatre; he wrote nine operas, after all. But it is perhaps of the cinema, rather than the theatre that Pines of Rome makes one think – not, I hasten to add, because I intend any denigration of Respighi, but in respect of how many echoes of Respighi’s tone poems can be heard in the early film music of Hollywood. Straightaway Chailly convinced one of the proper seriousness (but not solemnity) with which he took the music; the opening had a delightful bustling energy, radiant with the spirit of play – and what a splendidly irreverent ‘raspberry’ the trumpets delivered! In ‘The Pines near the Catacombs’ the orchestra gave a perfect demonstration of what was one of their hallmarks on the evening – their wonderful capacity for subtle gradations of piano/pianissimo. Indeed, at the other end of the scale, one never felt that there was any indulgence in loudness for its own sake. The extreme range of dynamics on show was always employed for persuasive musical reasons. In ‘The Pines of the Janiculum’ the clarinet soloist, Mauro Fernando, played with unaffected, exquisite grace, and in ‘The Pines of the Appian Way’ one was aware just how well-prepared a performance this was, the attention to detail meticulous, the huge orchestra yet retaining great transparency of sound. The spectacular climax was as exciting as one had any right to hope for.


This first half was an immense treat for any lover of Italian music – it is hard not to resort to clichés about orchestra (though its personnel isn’t exclusively Italian) and conductor having this music in their blood. The second half – though still theatrical in its musical language, moved away from the Italian repertoire with a performance of the complete score of the 1910 ballet The Firebird.


Chailly is, of course, a fine conductor of the modern repertoire – one need think only of his superb recording of the work of Varèse – but also a master of late romantics such as Mahler and Zemlinsky. A transitional work such as The Firebird –from one angle one of the last works in the Russian romantic line that runs through Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and beyond, from another angle one of the first works of the ‘modern’ Stravinsky – one would expect to be well suited to him. And so it proved, though some of the earlier movements were relatively lack-lustre (by the high standards set in the first half of the concert). Throughout the string ensemble work was remarkably precise, the playing having an edge and bite entirely fitted to the music. The score contains a great many passages in which individual instruments are, as it were, ‘exposed’ and the musicians of La Scala acquitted themselves with uniform excellence in such passages. The orchestra is well equipped with some outstanding section leaders, not least Robert Miele, the first horn and Valentino Zucchiatti and Fabrizio Meloni amongst the bassoons. The performance became more convincing as it went on, highlights including a fearsome ‘infernal dance of King Kaschei’ and a beautiful ‘Berceuse’, as well as some spine tingling climaxes. Though I enjoyed this reading of Stravinsky’s ballet, it is the performance of Italian repertoire in the first half of the concert which will stay longest in my memory, I suspect.


Chailly’s intelligence and his attention to detail were everywhere evident. His obvious love of the music was infectious and seemed to be shared by the musicians of the La Scala Philharmonic. The technical and interpretative standards were very high indeed – every section of the orchestra impressed, perhaps above all the strings and an outstanding percussion section, both fierce and astonishingly precise.



 Glyn Pursglove



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