Despite the deprivations of debilitating jet-lag, gruelling performance schedules, capricious audiences and quixotic concert halls, overseas touring has become a routine part of any important orchestra’s activities. It seems British ensembles lead the chariots of musical fire blazing forth across the globe. Having started the foreign tour fantasy as early as 1912 (and narrowly avoiding a permanent finale on the Titanic), the London Symphony Orchestra was a pioneer of overseas musical sojourns. International touring is usually financially advantageous and reputedly advances national prestige. 

Sir Antonio Pappano © Musacchio Ianniello | Warner Classics
Sir Antonio Pappano
© Musacchio Ianniello | Warner Classics

Orchestral players seem divided on the overall utility (not to mention enjoyment) of these lengthy tours but all concede the biggest challenge is to adapt to the acoustics of unfamiliar halls whilst preserving the individual sound their ensemble has (or should have) developed over many years. The visit of the LSO to Poland is a perfect case in point. Accustomed to the aural banality of the Barbican, the exceptional resonance of the new NFM concert hall in Wrocław initially presented Sir Antonio Pappano with serious problems in orchestral balance.  Fortunately the innate musicianship of the players and the maestro’s extraordinary adaptability ultimately prevailed.  

Unquestionably, longer rehearsal time would have been desirable but such is often the case with touring. When the NFM hall opened last September with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic, there was no rehearsal at all. The balance disequilibrium was evident from the first few bars of Richard Strauss’ exacting tone-poem Don Juan. The dynamic marking is ff but it sounded more like ffff in all sections. The soaring string passages were subsumed by the LSO’s legendary brass (especially trumpets and trombones) and the pounding timpani overwhelmed any semblance of thematic nuance or articulation. Violin quaver runs were almost inaudible and it wasn’t until the ppp tranquillo section with glockenspiel and harp that the dust finally settled. At least in the beautifully phrased oboe solo the musical texture reached much greater translucency and Pappano’s breadth of vision for the piece became apparent. Despite the enormous volume, this important early Strauss opus failed to make a serious impact.

With its less opaque orchestration, Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche fared much better. Barry Tuckwell’s legacy was certainly evident in the first horn’s cheeky playing of the Till theme with a wonderfully raspy low A natural at the end of the phrase. Crisply articulated jocularity was also evident in the first clarinet and violin solo. The long tutti trilling fermata before the leitfertig 2/4 passage had oomph and precision and the gallows theme was suitably scary. Pappano’s effortless sense of Straussian syncopation and tempo graduations was fluid and consistently impressive.

After some mystical re-adjustment to match the hall’s peerless acoustics, the optimal orchestral balance was restored in the second half and the brilliance of the LSO became apparent in Elgar’s lengthy Second Symphony.

Despite Benjamin Britten’s claim that: “(I heard) one minute of Elgar’s Symphony Number Two but can stand no more”  this is surely one of the most underrated symphonies of the 20th century. It was the end of an era. Edward VII to whose memory the work is dedicated, had just died and Elgar felt the king’s death personally: “that dear sweet-tempered King was always so pleasant to me”. It is unsurprising that a profound tristezza pervades this supremely sonorous work (even in the slightly manic Rondo) and Pappano’s reading was not only insightful and elegaic, but immensely moving.  

The luscious string tones, especially from violas and cellos were Wiener Philharmoniker-like, and the arching Brahmsian bursts of intense lyricism passionately played. Although the first movement is more typical of the ‘maestoso’ Elgar, it is the angst-ridden Larghetto which makes the greatest impact. Here the LSO strings showed their strength in exceptionally elegant phrasing and subtle, varied tone colourings. Even the previously intransigent brass adapted brilliantly to the wistful pastorale. The word nobilmente is noted many times in the score. This is surely the best description of Pappano’s masterly interpretation of this superb symphony.

As if to reinforce the mood of melancholia, the LSO played an encore of “Nimrod” from the Enigma Variations. The hyper-attentive Polish audience seemed to identify with this music more than the Strauss and the orchestra received a rapturous standing ovation. Elgar would have been well pleased. Unlike the relatively unresponsive London audience at the première of his Second Symphony, whom he described as “stuffed pigs”, here was a foreign public who intuitively understood this quintessentially English composer and was deeply moved by the immensity of emotions expressed. At least in Poland, Britannia and the LSO still rule the musical waves.

 

Click here to read more about Poland's new concert halls. 

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