The Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia clearly aims for the broader message. It brings in the new year with an ambitious cycle entitled "Beethoven and the Contemporaries", in which all nine of Beethoven's symphonies are to be set alongside works by contemporary composers and contemporaries of Beethoven himself. "This inauguration is a cry to say that we need creativity," Antonio Pappano reportedly declared at last week's season-opener in Rome. On a rare visit to Milan, a programme of Gaspare Spontini and Beethoven exhibited a sound that was sometimes rough around the edges but brimming with creative energy.

Antonio Pappano © Musacchio Ianniello | EMI
Antonio Pappano
© Musacchio Ianniello | EMI

It has been a particularly good week for the orchestra. Its much anticipated studio recording of Aida, released last Friday, has won broad critical acclaim for the orchestra's trademark vitality, referred to by Pappano as its italianità. Tonight's rendition of the Overture to Spontini's opera Olympie – another tale of imperial strife, set to the backdrop of the death of Alexander the Great – had such vitality in full evidence. Well-sprung artillery fire was interspersed with sweet pauses and songful violins. Pappano has clearly fostered a strong relationship with the orchestra, so it is hardly surprising that he has recently extended his contract to 2019. His thrashing gestures were short on elegance, but they successfully galvanised the players into a dynamic unit. 

The full classicism of Spontini functioned to highlight the progressiveness of Beethoven, who was born four years earlier. Beethoven's Symphony no. 2 in D major bursts at its Classical seams with mercurial instability, with the composer tipping towards something altogether more Romantic in sentiment. Morphing textures and spitting shards underpin the introduction – a hotbed of invention in itself – in which Pappano coiled the tension with rooted tempo, before releasing a steeplechase Allegro con brio that revelled in hairpin dynamics and amplified sforzandi. The Larghetto evidenced noteworthy balance and blend, though the players' individualities were not completely sacrificed to a concern for the whole. Frollicking horns spilled out arpeggios with distinctive character, whilst the fantastically expressive timpanist (both musically and physically) was a law unto himself. 

That is not to suggest that this was a luxury performance. Spacious rallentandi tended to be followed by clumsy entries. Split notes in the brass were too frequent to be anything less than a frustration. The confident chattering of winds was littered with slips. But if the choice was between safe precision and derring-do, we were grateful that the orchestra opted for the latter: the positive spin-off was that playing streamed with unobstructed joy. In this rendition, it was doubly challenging to imagine the suicidal torment Beethoven was experiencing Heiligen when he wrote the merry Second Symphony. The Scherzo hopped and lurched with skipping abandon, and the chirruping Finale ended with a practical joke, dimming to faux trepidation in offbeat pizzicato basses. The subsequent tutti explosion made us jump out of our seats. 

Beethoven's Symphony no. 5 in C minor is too well known to shock modern ears, but an enterprising sense of exploration kindled our attentions throughout. The first movement's iconic falling fifths jumped out from furtive passages. Though straight in delivery, they were animated by the broader chugging tempo. The Allegro was best characterised by its rusticity: woodwind rivulets swelling to sawing lower strings in the fugal passage, their dynamism percolating into the orchestra's upper regions. A daring stillness fell for the mysterious plucked passage, followed by a striking dissolving effect when trumpets melted through the portentous string pedal to usher in the finale. Amassed forces raced through the finish line, the tempo pushing on and never looking back.

In a gift from England, the encore simultaneously underlined Pappano's British ties and showed the distant lands in which the Romantic project was to find its feet. "Nimrod" from Elgar's Enigma Variations built from a dusky opening to proudly rolling brass. Endlessly spinning lines were invested with a great deal of italianità, which proved perfectly suited to what was, within the context of this programme, an exotic creative idiom.

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