After bringing Italianate colour to Massenet’s heady Thaïs on Tuesday evening, here was conductor Lorenzo Viotti again, this time bringing Italianate colour to Russian repertoire. Like many opera houses, the orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala has its own concert series – under the identity of the Filarmonica della Scala – which runs through the season. It’s a chance to release the players from the pit and it places them centre stage in front of an excellent acoustic “shell”.

Lorenzo Viotti
© Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

It was very instructive to hear just how different the same orchestra sounded even from Wednesday night, when they played Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame for Valery Gergiev with such brooding intensity, gruff and growling. The same composer’s Serenade for Strings is a completely different proposition, of course, but the Milanese strings brightened their tone for a reading soaked in sunshine. 

Tchaikovsky was fired up when he wrote the work in 1880, initially unsure as to whether it was going to be a string quartet or a symphony, but it turned out to be something in between. “I composed from an innate impulse,” he wrote. “I love this Serenade terribly, and fervently hope that it might soon see the light of day.” 

With double basses lined across the rear of the ensemble and antiphonal violins, Viotti encouraged a reading full of attack. He stands tall and has an elegant conducting style, a whippy baton action which sometimes encourages phrasing to be a bit clipped – as in the famous second movement Valse – but does not engage in lots of false histrionics. He maintained a sense of momentum in the Elegy so that it felt less like a slow movement. The finale, with its Russian folk theme, had terrific energy and aggression.

Lorenzo Viotti conducts the Filarmonica della Scala
© Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

That energy continued into a remarkably quick account of Sergei Rachmaninov’s Symphony no. 2 in E minor, done and dusted in under an hour, even if aided by a first movement cut of the exposition repeat. Impassioned or impatient? I lean towards the former as there was a real sense of Viotti and the orchestra getting caught up in the Romantic spirit of the work. 

After the lugubrious introduction and a querulous cor anglais link into the first movement’s Allegro moderato, Viotti urged the Filarmonica on, surging into the big string phrases, peppered by some pretty thunderous timpani and bass drum interjections. Transitions were managed particularly well so the work sounded less episodic than usual. The Scherzo rattled along ebulliently, leading to a few hairy moments for the strings in the Trio section’s fugal writing. The Adagio was rich and ardent, although the principal clarinet made little of his lush solo; the strings compensated though, with tremendous richness of tone. Viotti then pressed the accelerator in the finale, keeping it from flagging as the players crossed the finishing line triumphantly.