Having spent so much time in the opera pit, Sir Antonio Pappano is used to dealing with large-scale musical canvases and productions with lots of moving parts. But he is also no stranger to the concert hall, saying that he enjoys "the more intimate collaboration between musician, music and composer". Richard Strauss' majestic tone-poem An Alpine Symphony was, therefore, right up his street, and this performance with the London Symphony Orchestra proved to be a worthy statement of Strauss' epic depiction of a one-day ascent and descent of an Alpine mountain, taking in all the wonders, perils and myriad changes of scenery along the way.

Sir Antonio Pappano © Musacchio & Ianniello | EMI
Sir Antonio Pappano
© Musacchio & Ianniello | EMI

As if to provide a gradual build-up to the Strauss, the first half of the concert presented a 19th-century overture and concerto, opening with Rossini's overture to his last opera, William Tell. Far from being a vehicle to present one of the most recognisable themes in music, this piece, which also has an Alpine setting, is a mature work in four sections, not so much an overture but more of a tone-poem, showing similarities again with the Strauss. Pappano guided the LSO expertly, from the lyrical and warm cello opening to a nice build up of tension into the storm episode, with plenty of bounce, and no shortage of pace, in the famous Lone Ranger gallop towards the end.

Continuing the LSO's laudable initiative to showcase various sections and principals of the orchestra, this time it was the turn of LSO leader, Roman Simović, to perform Bruch's evergreen Violin Concerto no. 1 in G minor. Simović's statuesque posture and affable but self-effacing demeanour provided an appropriate stage presence for this most popular of all violin concertos. He expressed Bruch's music with equal measures of sweet lyricism and powerful intensity, and there was clearly a good rapport between soloist and orchestra. Simović's keen phrasing and Pappano's wonderful orchestral shaping made for a true dialogue, particularly in the first two movements, with sympathetic support from the LSO's plaintive winds and rugged strings. The inescapably romantic second movement was beautifully played, with both soloist and orchestra combining to produce a warm and rich texture, making the music flow gently like melting butter. The gypsy feel of the Finale was played with plenty of verve, with Simović navigating the interweaving phrases with great technique and enthusiasm leading to a satisfyingly joyous climax. His evocative encore was the final movement from Ysaÿe’s Sonata no. 2.

"I may not be a first-rate composer, but I am a first-class second-rate composer," Strauss declared. However, the sonic soundscape and sheer mastery of his orchestration in An Alpine Symphony, certainly puts paid to this tongue-in-cheek remark. In characteristic style, Pappano's shaping and conception of the whole was exemplary in Strauss' lavish score, with all sections of the orchestra superb throughout, from the deep reverberating brass and agile rasping winds to the effervescent and rich strings and strikingly pointed percussion, complete with cowbells, thunder-sheet and wind machine. Pappano's opening evocation of night was appropriately moody and slightly sinister, the waterfall scene intricate and magical, and the build up to the thunderstorm suspenseful, which, when it came, conveyed all the reckless violence reminiscent of Wotan riding the storm. Pappano created a sense of moroseness in the closing sections as sunset moved into night with an almost nostalgic feel, laying a cold and desolate blanket over the Alpine vista. With such enormous forces, every inch of the stage was filled, and it was only the Barbican Hall's dampening acoustics that did not give the piece its full impact. This was fully committed performance, however, expertly crafted by Pappano and superbly performed by the LSO.

****1