In concert – London Symphony Orchestra & Sir Antonio Pappano – Petrassi, Puccini & De Sabata

G. Gabrieli Canzoni – primi toni a 8; duodecimi toni a 8 (c1597)
Vivaldi Concerto for Four Violins in B minor RV580 / Op.3/10
Petrassi Concerto for Orchestra No. 5 (1954-5)
Puccini Capriccio sinfonico (1883)
De Sabata Juventus (1919)

Benjamin Gilmore, Julia Ungureanu, Julián Gil Rodríguez, Thomas Norris (violins), London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Antonio Pappano

Barbican Hall, London

Thursday 2 June 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What better way to mark Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee than with two concerts providing a decent overview of Italian orchestral music with the London Symphony Orchestra and its chief conductor designate Sir Antonio Pappano. That relatively little of this music has managed to enter the standard repertoire only makes revivals such as these the more worthwhile.

Tonight’s programme began off-stage with two Canzoni by Giovanni Gabrieli played by LSO brass from the centre of the lower circle – Pappano facing the audience to conduct. Although a more spacious and terraced acoustic would have presented these to better advantage, their hieratic grandeur as well as intricately contrapuntal texture was an admirable foil to Vivaldi‘s Concerto for Four Violins which followed onstage. Published in his ground-breaking collection L’estro armonico, its bracing outer Allegros frame a brief while unpredictable Largo whose disjunctive contrasts of tempo and technique brought the best out of a quartet drawn from the LSO front desks and notably well-matched in temperament.

From the early 18th to mid-20th century was less of an aesthetic wrench than might be thought, the Fifth Concerto for Orchestra by Goffredo Petrassi embodying various of those facets as set out by his musical antecedents. Written for the Boston Symphony and long-serving director Charles Munch, this is arguably the most representative of its composer’s eight such works in its amalgam of technical virtuosity with that personal adaptation of serial thinking which Petrassi pursued during the post-war era. Moreover, its outwardly simple format of two movements each following a slow-fast trajectory belies a subtler and more organic evolution – such that an atmospheric prelude intensifies into a capricious scherzo whose provisional close makes possible what follows. Here, an increasingly restive intermezzo elides into a Dionysian toccata with brass and percussion to the fore – then a pensive epilogue returns the music to the inwardness from which it had emerged. A superb performance from the LSO, and a timely revival of this not so minor masterpiece.

His operas brought the orchestral component of Italian opera to a new level of sophistication, but Puccini wrote little for orchestra alone. Essentially his graduation exercise, Capriccio sinfonico is equally a ‘statement of intent’ with its unfolding from a sombre opening (later to be redeployed in Edgar), through an energetic central phase (its main idea familiar as the opening of La bohème), to a modified reprise of that first section which brings about a gently fatalistic close. Pappano duly guided the LSO through an assured reading of music known ‘by default’, making one regret that Puccini’s later focus on opera to the virtual exclusion of all else left no comparable orchestral work from his maturity.

Much the same might be said of Victor de Sabata (above), whose international career as a conductor from his late thirties left him with little time or inclination to compose. A sequence of symphonic poems from around the early 1920s confirms sure mastery of the orchestra, and if Juventus is hardly the deepest of these, its dramatic flair and gestural immediacy are not to be gainsaid. Here, too, there is a three-part structure – the vaunting aspiration of youth becoming subsumed into the trials and setbacks which come with experience, before a revival of those earlier convictions ensures a close of blazing affirmation. Other composers might have invested such a sequence with a dialectical sense of change and attainment, but de Sabata is content to take these implications at face value – while investing his music with a greater subtlety and resourcefulness than it has often been credited for (not least by the writer of this evening’s programme note). This was certainly evident in Pappano’s take on a piece which could yet attract plaudits for other than its name.

As if mindful of the context in which this concert was heard, Pappano opened the second half with a rendering of the National Anthem – somewhat to the surprise of an audibly bemused audience, and presumably not to be repeated for Sunday’s follow-up programme that features Respighi and Dallapiccola at their (very different) communicative best.

To read more on the London Symphony Orchestra’s current season, visit their website

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