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Mahler, Verdi, Liszt: Orchestra of the Accademia Nazionale Di Santa Cecilia, Rome, Antonio Pappano (conductor), Boris Berezovsky (piano).

Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 19.3.2011 (CT)

On the face of it, the combination of an Italian orchestra and Gustav Mahler does not seem like a match made in heaven, but the Orchestra Nazionale di Santa Cecilia is an ensemble that prides itself on its illustrious history of Mahler performance.

In March 1907 and April 1910 Mahler visited Rome to conduct the orchestra in performances that prompted the Italian national newspaper "Il Messaggero" to comment "thanks to the conductor, the orchestra was transformed into an organism full of vigour and perfectly balanced". Those visits were two of a very small number of excursions that Mahler made outside of the Austro-Hungarian border.

It's a quote that could equally be applied to Anglo-Italian Antonio Pappano, whose magnificently colourful account of Mahler's Symphony No. 1 in the second half of this concert drew an inspired response from the orchestra and brought a proportion of the audience to its feet in Symphony Hall.

Pappano's mere presence in front of the orchestra seemed to ignite its Italian passion, drawing a sound that was uniquely theirs as its bloom and hues of burnished gold called to mind the Roman sun that has been an ever present part of the orchestra's existence since its inception in 1885.

Given that the orchestra's tour was in honour of the 150th Anniversary of Italian unification the inclusion of music by Verdi was almost a must, although his Aida Sinfonia is a rarity indeed, not having been given its first public performance until thirty-nine years after the composer's death by Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra.

If evidence were needed of the gloriously individual sound of this orchestra, it was there from the opening bars, the fragile yet beguiling sound of the high violins, the warmth that emanated from the woodwind and the sonority of the string section as a whole seemingly magnified by the layout of basses high to the left and cellos to the centre.

Although only ten minutes long the Sinfonia exists on the level of a symphonic poem, imbued with the tension, drama and atmosphere of Verdi's Egyptian inspired epic, condensed into a span that makes for an unusual yet appropriate concert opener. Pappano's harnessing of that drama and tension made for a a compelling listening experience and one which was to be replicated in the Liszt and Mahler that followed.

Russian Boris Berezovsky has been with the Orchestra throughout its short British tour and the warhorse that is Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1 was a vehicle perfectly suited to both his bold musicality and substantial physical frame. Berezovsky plays with an almost complete absence of gestural histrionics, his body rarely moving as he powered his way with magnificent weight and purpose through the outer movements. Yet as a result the stark contrast of the Quasi Adagio proved to be all the more impressive, with the pianist's sensitivity and nuance of colour and shade marking his playing out as a shining example of textural control and contrast.

Pappano's "Titan" cleansed the soul like a breath of fresh alpine air; invigorating, bitter-sweet, joyous and ultimately life affirming, the beauty of the sound Pappano drew from his forces was a thing of wonder, directed with understated yet always compelling gestures in the third movement and clear, intensely focused precision and communicative clarity in the stormy Finale.  The woodwind fanfares of the opening movement were treated with gossamer-like delicacy by the orchestra, whilst the offstage trumpets came into their own in magnificent fashion in the radiant coda to the final movement where the brass section of the orchestra was revealed in its full majestic glory, the horns rising to their feet for the closing paragraphs. The emotional extremities of Mahler's music were achieved with an intensity that burnt from within, complimented by shaping and phrasing of the music in the Funeral March that left no doubt as to Pappano's credentials as a conductor of Mahler.

With an almost essential taste of Rossini and William Tell, the Intermezzo from Manon Lescaut and the Thunder and Lightning Polka, the euphoric audience was treated to no less than three encores before Antonio Pappano eventually conceded that he must leave, only to appear for an autograph signing session in the foyer ten minutes later.  If the anniversary of Italian unification inspires music making of this quality, maybe it should be celebrated on an annual basis.


Christopher Thomas

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