All roads lead to Rome. Last night however, the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia brought the Eternal City vividly to London in the form of two of Respighi’s vibrant travelogues, the Fountains and Pines of Rome. The Royal Festival Hall was the latest stop on the orchestra’s Roman Holiday, three years since it last toured here. Music Director Sir Antonio Pappano is a more familiar face in London – even if that face is usually buried in the pit at Covent Garden – and it was no surprise to see him launch into these glorious Technicolor scores with such vigour.  

Sir Antonio Pappano © Riccardo Musacchio & Flavio Ianniello
Sir Antonio Pappano
© Riccardo Musacchio & Flavio Ianniello

Pappano dived into Respighi’s bewildering array of colours like a glutton in a gelateria, greedily advancing straight into The Pines of Rome as the last notes of Fountains faded. We elbowed through the crowds thronged around the Trevi Fountain, surging forcefully without always having time to admire the spectacular view, and were dazzled by the fierce sunlight over the Pines of the Villa Borghese. It was the most theatrical of readings, ending with Pappano and his forces swaggering along The Appian Way, with brass sentries posted around the Festival Hall.

For all the gaudiness though, Respighi also provides many tender moments and these quieter sections made a great impression, from the veiled second violins rippling the Fountain at Valle Giulia into life to the crepuscular trickle of the Fountain at the Villa Medici at sunset. The Santa Cecilia woodwinds featured in some excellent cameos, notably the Chianti-dark clarinet with its liquid phrasing summoning a magical off-stage nightingale up on Janiculum hill. It’s obvious how much Pappano and his orchestra love these Roman postcards.

If the woodwinds shone in Respighi, it was the Santa Cecilia strings which starred elsewhere. In the orchestra’s first encore, Sibelius’ Valse triste, the hushed playing almost became inaudible in its softness, while in Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in B flat minor, their meringue-light pizzicatos opened the slow movement with exquisite delicacy, making way for an airy flute solo. The concerto was given a probing account by Yuja Wang. Her playing was full of interesting things, notably restoring the piano’s arpeggiated opening chords as originally written. At times, she teased phrases into unusual shapes and there was a sense that she and Pappano weren’t always seeing eye to eye in terms of tempo and character. The high-spirited finale hurtled towards its hell-for-leather coda. Schubert, as transcribed by Liszt, and Mozart, as transcribed – or transformed – by Arcadi Volodos and Fazil Say into a jazzy knees-up of the Ronda alla turca, were the tumultuously received encores.

Rossini topped and tailed the evening. Le siège de Corinthe was Rossini's first French opera (a reworking of Maometto II), premiered at the Salle Le Peletier of the Paris Opéra in 1826. The Santa Cecilians  launched into the overture with tremendous brio, grounded by a row of double basses at the back of the platform. The brass section was reinforced by a cimbasso, an Italian brass instrument of the trombone family, featuring some truly impressive plumbing. Pappano drove an urgent reading, where the orchestra threatened to stumble in its headlong rush, although it never quite did. Likewise the galop from the overture to William Tell (Rossini's final opera), a flurry of excitement to end an incident-packed programme. Bravi tutti!