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Reviews

07 Mar 2019

Puccini’s Messa di Gloria: Antonio Pappano and the London Symphony Orchestra

This was an oddly fascinating concert - though, I’m afraid, for quite the wrong reasons (though this depends on your point of view). As a vehicle for the sound, and playing, of the London Symphony Orchestra it was a notable triumph - they were not so much luxurious - rather a hedonistic and decadent delight; but as a study into three composers, who wrote so convincingly for opera, and taken somewhat out of their comfort zone, it was not a resounding success.

LSO conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano

A review by Marc Bridle

Above: Gerald Finley

 

I found Antonio Pappano’s layout of the orchestra quite revealing; even obsessively gripping to listen to - and it was something he didn’t deviate from through all three works. Violins were antiphonally divided, double-basses placed to the extreme left, along with timpani behind them, and violas and cellos placed evenly across the centre of the orchestra. This may, in design, have been entirely organised this way for the second work on the programme - Verdi’s orchestration of his String Quartet in the version for full strings (in this LSO performance by a version that had been sanctioned by Verdi in 1877). Somewhat appropriately, this is a work which André Previn, who died last week, and who had a more than forty-year association with the London Symphony Orchestra, also conducted - and recorded with the Wiener Philharmoniker - though most often in the Toscanini arrangement.

The quartet is not really Verdi at his best. At times, you might even struggle to identify the work as by Verdi at all - something, for example, that you could never do with the string quartets composed by Beethoven, Bartók or Shostakovich - or even the few that Tchaikovsky wrote, all quartets which sound unmistakably by those composers. At times, this is a work that doesn’t seem very far away from Mendelssohn - but then it can also have the loftiness and gravity of German music. Rarely does it touch on being overly Italian, however - and it doesn’t have the inner-voices in the instrumentation or scoring that characterise so many of his operas. But Pappano and the LSO were something of a revelation in a performance that, if a little heavily phrased at times, brought considerable clarity to their playing. Those divided strings sometimes felt as if they were in a tennis match - the playing was just gorgeous, and very articulate. There was something balletic - recalling this composer’s Macbeth - to the Prestissimo and the fugue that dominates the final movement was ideal for the weight that Pappano drew from the LSO strings - a hallmark of their playing the entire evening. It’s quite uncanny how Germanic this orchestra is sounding these days.

Ponchielli’s Elegia - an undated work - but published only forty years ago - doesn’t really challenge the assumption that this is a composer who is going to suddenly become better known for a piece other than La Gioconda. It is very much what the title suggests it is and doesn’t delve much deeper. If it explores grief, it doesn’t come close to doing so in a cathartic way; there are no moments of epiphany, and the anguish never seems to be of the kind that mirrors loss or devastation. It wasn’t for a lack of trying from the orchestra - just that the music never quite allowed them to do much except play through it.

The main work on the programme was Puccini’s Messa di Gloria, a work begun when the composer was 20 and finished two years later. Granted this is a graduation piece by the young Puccini, but it remains an oddly unsatisfying work and I’m not convinced that even Pappano’s advocacy of it would persuade me otherwise. It’s been argued that’s it not really a messa in the conventional sense at all - more a mass. It remained largely unperformed in Puccini’s lifetime, indeed he ended up taking pieces from this early work (such as the Agnes Dei) which was to find a place in Act II of Manon Lescaut. The solo voices, too - written just for a tenor and a bass-baritone - also give the work a somewhat darker colour, especially compared to Rossini’s Messa di Gloria which uses a wider vocal range. But Puccini is clearly of the view that this should be a sacred work - in its entirety - and there is no question we are getting into the territory with a piece like the Verdi Requiem of debating whether religious works should breach the barriers between the sacred and the operatic.

It’s the twenty-minute Gloria which forms the backbone of this piece - and if you can sometimes detect militaristic writing from Verdi in it (such as Aida) that’s because Puccini, like a magpie, seems to consciously or otherwise, draw on this. The LSO brass, if anything, were a touch understated - something one couldn’t say of the gloriously full-throated chorus. The first entry of the tenor at ‘Gratias agimas tibi’ - here sung by Benjamin Bernheim - sounded a little nervously done but he quickly found his stride and by the time he sang his second solo, ‘Et incarnatus’, he was a powerful and resonant presence. His voice can sound extraordinarily lyrical, even beautiful - in short, it’s an ideal Puccini voice. But the composer doesn’t make it easy for his two soloists (especially the bass-baritone) who are sat around for a considerable period of time before having to sing a note. Bernheim looked the more nervous of the two; Gerald Finley seemed the more confident, head buried deep in his score - but appearances proved deceptive. Finley is a singer I have found troubling in the past - his Scarpia at Covent Garden in January 2018 I had found very underpowered - and I didn’t find either his ‘Crucifixus’ or his ‘Benedictus’ sung here to be an improvement on that. His ‘Crucifixus’ almost disappeared under the basses of the chorus, though Puccini’s adagio tempo is hardly helpful. Only in the Agnes Dei do we the get the bass-baritone and tenor singing in unison - the only real moment in the Messa where Puccini really strives towards the operatic in a work which is entirely devoid of it. It’s an oddly muted ending, tailing off and making the Messa almost sound an incomplete work.

The combined forces of the LSO Chorus had been extraordinarily accomplished throughout this performance - some of the cappella singing had been of a very high quality, for example. Pappano drew exquisite playing from the orchestra - they clearly have considerable rapport with each other. An unusual programme of late Italian Romanticism certainly, and an uneven one as well from composers better known for their operas, despite the unquestionably high artistic standards which it often reached. This was also filmed live by Medici TV and can be watched until June 3rd 2019.

Marc Bridle

Benjamin Bernheim (tenor), Gerald Finley (bass-baritone), Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor), London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.

Barbican Centre; London 3rd March 2019.

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