A few weeks ago, not long before the due date for Sir Antonio Pappano and Daniil Trifonov's joint concert at Rome's Auditorium Parco della Musica, some amendments in this programme were announced. The second half of the concert remained untouched, maintaining Sibelius' First Symphony; the first half, however, replaced Brahms' First Piano Concerto with two different works: Beethoven's overture from The Creatures of Prometheus and Mozart's Piano Concerto no. 9 in E flat major, also known as the Jeunehomme. As one might guess, the change was fairly drastic, since Brahms and Mozart belong to completely different realms in terms of both conducting and piano playing. 

Sir Antonio Pappano conducting the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia
© Musacchio, Ianniello e Pasqualini

While not being Beethoven's only attempt at ballet music, The Creatures of Prometheus is the composer's most significant encounter with the genre. Despite the favourable appraisal it received at its premiere in 1801, nowadays the composition owes most of its fame to the overture, which customarily features a slow introduction (Adagio) followed by a vivacious fast movement (Allegro molto con brio). Pappano took Beethoven's tempo markings to heart. Starting off in an unhurried, almost grandiose manner, his conducting promptly turned vibrant and quick-paced, ably carrying the thematic discourse. This set a fitting, pleasant tone for the beginning of the evening.

All the more pity, then, that the subsequent work did not meet our hopes. To be fair, we can only assume that the change of programme was not beneficial to its performers. Pappano's repertoire of choice rarely includes Mozart's orchestral works and his interpretation, it would seem, was based on a stylistic misunderstanding, focusing  almost exclusively focused on the rotund, singable quality of the work's melodies. Despite the slender instrumentation, the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia felt torpid, struggling to grasp the brisk vitality of Mozart's score. This was particularly evident in the first movement, whose lively pace was hampered by a tone which was dense at best, languid at worst.

Daniil Trifonov
© Musacchio, Ianniello e Pasqualini

Daniil Trifonov's performance was ambivalent. While his was a precise and attentive rendition of the concerto, it was hard to pinpoint a peculiar interpretative lens. His playing was certainly not extrovert or ebullient; it was rather more pensive and collected. In this sense, the most persuasive sections of the pianist's performance were the cadenzas. Trifonov avoided turning them into a showcase for his virtuosity and managed to convey great emotional intensity through simplicity.

The tune – literally – changed once the concert entered the second half. Sibelius' late-Romantic idiom was certainly more suited to the conductor's volcanic sensitivity, which made this interpretation no less than memorable. Pappano and the Santa Cecilia reached an incredible degree of coordination, the musicians responding to each cue with the utmost receptivity. The whole performance was kept at a constant level of sizzling tension, even during moments of extreme orchestral rarefaction, such is the case for the several solo passages, which were brilliantly executed. Pappano's rendition was anything but icy: if there was something Finnish to be found in it, it was rather a largeness of breadth which seemed to outline the country's vast landscapes. This granted the performance a well-deserved success. By the time the closing pizzicato notes stopped resonating in the concert hall, the unfortunate impression of the Mozart concerto was but a distant memory.