In concert – London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Antonio Pappano: Richard Strauss, Coleridge-Taylor & Liszt

Roman Simovic (violin), London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Antonio Pappano

Coleridge-Taylor Ballade in A minor Op.33 (1898)
Liszt Die Ideale S106 (1856-7)
Richard Strauss Ein Heldenleben Op. 40 (1898)

Barbican Hall, London
Sunday 12 February 2023

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

It may have been his only concert this season with the orchestra of which he becomes Chief Conductor next year, but the rapport between Sir Antonio Pappano and the London Symphony Orchestra was audibly sustained through the whole of what proved a judiciously programmed concert.

Whether or not his Ballade (as commissioned for and premiered at a Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester) was inspired by music from a nearby street organist, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s work confirms the melodic fecundity and orchestral panache of his maturity. Its languorous slower episodes, framed by swifter sections of mounting energy, might not generate a more cumulative momentum, but the emotional immediacy of this piece overall is never less than appealing – certainly in a performance as vividly and precisely executed as that given tonight.

Pappano gave a memorable account of Liszt’s Eine Faust Symphonie four seasons ago, and it is good to see him exploring the mostly neglected orchestral output of this still misunderstood figure. The 12th of his symphonic poems, Die Ideale was written for the unveiling of a statue of Goethe and Schiller – a poem by the latter furnishing the conceptual basis of a piece which avoids programmatic or psychological excess for mostly lyrical and understated material; one whose deftly modified sonata design may well have been in Wagner’s mind when envisaging the symphony of the future. Pappano steered a cohesive course, building assuredly towards a triumphal if never bombastic apotheosis whose chordal writing for timpani (picked up on by Bruckner in his First Symphony nine years later) is merely its most striking musical attribute.

This conductor has made a fine recording of Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben with Orchestra dell’ Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, and a similar combination of formal clarity alongside expressive intensity was evident here. Surging forward without indulgence, The Hero found due contrast in the sniping pettiness of The Hero’s Adversaries – consummately rendered by the LSO woodwind – then leader Roman Simovic took centre-stage for an unusually focussed take on The Hero’s Companion as culminated in rapturous euphony. Pappano’s underlying tempo for The Hero at Battle was a little too headlong, though never to the detriment of its textural density in what emerged as a purposeful development of the work’s myriad motifs; heading into a powerfully wrought climax at the beginning of The Hero’s Works of Peace.

It is in this penultimate section that the work’s pivoting between tone poem and symphony is most finely drawn, and Pappano duly underlined the numerous allusions to Strauss’s earlier pieces with due awareness of their place within the intricately conceived whole. Nor was the fateful transition into The Hero’s Resignation and Fulfilment uncharacterized, making this finale a culmination of the overall design and consummation of its intrinsic content. Whether or not the evocation of domestic bliss, there could be little doubt as to the music’s sincerity.

Contrary to latter-day presumptions, moreover, there was no evidence of the work’s revised ending as somehow tacked-on to what went before – Pappano drawing a Nietzschean ‘oneness’ from those closing bars which set the seal on a persuasive reading, and a memorable concert.

You can find out more about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the London Symphony Orchestra website. Click on the artist names for more on Sir Antonio Pappano and Roman Simovic, while you can also read more about the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Foundation

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