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Seen and Heard Concert Review



Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saens, Rachmaninov: London Symphony Orchestra, Antonio Pappano, Conductor , Simon Trpceski  (piano)17.12.2006. Barbican Hall London (GD)



‘Francesca da Rimini’ used to be far more frequently played in the concert hall when it was a ‘show-case’ speciality of conductors like Beecham and Stokowski. Although it can still sound over- rhetorical and melodramatic, it needs a conductor who above all manages to make its three sections cohere around the opening three note brass figure repeated by the woodwinds and reappearing as a link between the sections. Also, the tempo relations between the Allegro vivo of the ‘inferno’, storm music and the Andante cantabile of the lyrical love melody (portraying the illicit and doomed love relation between Francesca and Paolo, from the fifth Canto of Dante’s ‘Inferno’), need to be paced in a way that synchronizes the work as if in a single, but contrasting line. Mravinsky and Rozhdestvensky could certainly manage this as could also the younger Giulini. Tonight Pappano didn’t quite manage this, despite a very arresting plunge into the opening ‘Andante lugubre’ descent into hell. But then Pappano took the Allegro vivo at a too fast tempo not enabling him and the orchestra to accurately project/articulate the complex rhythmic/contrapuntal writing, especially in the brass and woodwind. Also, and not surprisingly, there were a few untidy entries in the brass. The initiation of the first Andante cantabile on woodwind  needed too be played more ‘dolce’, and more pianissimo; later statements of the theme on strings were not dynamically contrasted as they should be, the LSO strings seeming to lack that shimmering and atmospheric pianissimo, so essential to this music. Pappano did maintain quite a sustained tempo for the brief, furious coda, but I was unable to discern the complex string/woodwind configurations, which here were mostly drowned by the brass.

I have not heard the Macedonian pianist Simon Trpceski before, but on tonight’s showing he is certainly a pianist I shall be interested in for future concerts. He launched into the passacaglia opening solo prelude to the Saint-Saens Second Piano Concerto( in G minor) with complete assurance, producing great range and lucidity of tone…so appropriate in this work which is, in part, a kind of tribute to Bach ( with Mozart, Saint-Saens most admired Bach as a master  composer from the past.) It is good to hear this thoroughly well composed and inventive concerto, which, like other works by Saint- Saens, are little played in concert now. Pappano conducted the Andante sostenuto in a quite grand, robust manner, missing some of the harmonic rhythmic nuance that conductors like Monteux and Dutoit brought, and bring to this music. But overall Pappano’s accompaniment was quite competent. The Second movement Allegro Scherzando (once of encore fame) was given great brio and lilt by Trpceski, and although conductor and orchestra accompanied well (with the pianist) details like the initial pianissimo rhythmic figure on timpani would have sounded so much more idiomatic if the timpanist had been instructed to deploy hard sticks, to make the rhythmic idea ‘sound’ more. Throughout the whole concert I did not notice much of a change in the kind of sticks the LSO timpanist used. This can, and did, lead to a kind of uniformity of tone… such a contrast to the superb percussion section (superb overall!) of the ‘Marinsky Theatre orchestra of St Petersburg heard here at the Barbican very recently. Trpceski played a real presto in the exhilarating final. This was very much the soloist’s performance, from the whirlwind arpeggios of the opening section, to the wild tarantella which initiates the coda (really amazing piano playing and composing!)

Mostly Pappano made a good job of the Rachmaninov ‘Symphonic Dances’ (the composer’s last major work). He maintained a firm ‘Non allegro’ throughout the thrusting rhythmic opening section and exposition, deploying just the right easing of tempo and tonal mood for the middle-section  (C sharp minor, to contrast and complement the tonic C minor of the rest of the movement.) Here the beautifully haunting melody, given initially to solo saxophone, was most imaginatively contoured by soloist and the gently undulating accompanying woodwind lines. The Second movement Andante con moto, which is marked ‘Tempo di valse’, has something of the ‘dance macabre’ about it, or, more accurately underlying it, with its almost bi-tonal shifts between sometimes remote minor and major registers. But here again, especially in the big surging string melody I noticed a kind of strident edge in the exposed top C violin line; again I longed for the Mariinsky orchestra, or the St. Petersburg Philharmonic!

The Third dance comprises probably the most arresting music the ‘romantic’ Rachmaninov ever composed, particularly in the second (quasi development section) of the dance’s three sections. Here the composer deploys some arresting chromatic ostinato cross-rhythms, tossed about from section to section. From this the chant of the Dies Irae becomes sinisterly discernible. For the concluding, tonally ambiguous section, Rachmaninov introduces a more affirmative chant from the Vespers of the Russian Orthodox liturgy, which finally (almost) wins out across a musical terrain still haunted by the semblance of the Dies Irae theme. This work was first performed in 1942, and was, and is, still criticised as something of an anachronism, understandable when you think that Schoenberg  Webern and Berg  had left all (almost all) of this ‘romantic’ baggage behind nearly twenty years before.

But although some aspects of the work are undeniably ‘conservative’ it is still an arresting and highly innovative piece, not least for the amazingly inventive orchestration. Pappano managed quite well, although some of the enormously difficult rhythmic/cross-rhythmic writing in the middle section, and towards the coda, was slurred at times, particularly in the brass…the important Dies Irae sequences were not always together, and the convergence of the Russian Vespers chant, with the still truculent mutated Dies Irae theme was marred by smudged ensemble.

Throughout the concert Pappano deployed the fashionable orchestral seating arrangement where first and second violins are terraced altogether on the conductors left. I know I go on about this somewhat…but again, all the three works played tonight were composed specifically for divided first and second violins, and all gain, in matters of antiphonal/tonal clarity, when deployed correctly. But it seems that these observations fall on deaf ears!

After the Saint-Saens Piano Concerto (before the interval) Trpceski played, as an encore, Mendelssohn’s delightful ‘Venetian Boat Song’ from his ‘Songs without Words’ Op. 19 No 6. Again a rare sense of pianistic nuance and gentle lilted rhythm.



Geoff Diggines 



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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)