Little-known fact no. 1: Antonio Pappano made his conducting debut at the Norwegian National Opera, conducting La Bohème in 1987.

Little-known fact no. 2: Antonio Pappano was music director of the Norwegian National Opera in the early 90s.

These are probably big reasons as to why he chose to come to this part of the world to celebrate his 25th anniversary as a conductor. With him, he brought the Roman orchestra of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, of which he is music director, and the Swedish contralto Anna Larsson for an evening in the sign of Late Romanticism.

The first piece of the concert was Giacomo Puccini’s Preludio sinfonico, his second orchestral piece, composed by a 22-year-old Puccini in 1882, while he was still at the conservatory in Milan. That this is an early piece is readily apparent in the music. Although there are definitely hints of the glories to come, the piece suffers from not too inventive orchestration and definitely has its dull moments. Still, it is an impressive piece, especially if one considers Puccini’s age. And Santa Cecilia definitely did it justice. The strings, and especially the celli, played beautifully, and although there were a few imprecise pizzicato moments and a certain graininess to the sound in the beginning, the performance was ravishing. The brass, on the other hand sounded slightly muffled and did not project as well as one might have wanted over the sea of strings before them.

Next, about three fourths of the orchestra disappeared along with Pappano, and left was something more akin to a Classical-sized orchestra, with a severely diminished string section and a limited number of woodwinds. Out came Pappano with Swedish contralto Anna Larsson, ready for Hans Werner Henze’s instrumentation of Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder. The Wesendonck-Lieder were written by Wagner while he was still working on Tristan und Isolde, and the texts are texts by Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of one of Wagner’s patrons.

The piece started out rather too slowly with “Der Engel”, which never really seemed to go anywhere. It lacked any sense of direction, and Larsson’s phrases lost themselves way half-way through. The second song, “Stehe Still”, made up for the first song’s lack of tempo, at least in the beginning, and was actually quite exciting to listen to. The only problem was that in the slower section following the introduction, everyone seemed to lose their sense of direction again. Luckily, things really picked up in the third song, “In Triebhaus”. Larsson spun some very elegantly crafted lines, and it seemed that the orchestra had finally managed to reprogram their playing from huge, romantic orchestra to a small(ish) chamber ensemble. The next two songs, “Schmerzen” and “Träume”, were even better. Larsson’s approach clearly focused on word colouration and phrasing rather than projecting over the orchestra. Her singing was very soft throughout, and although she produced some swoon-worthy pianissimi, I cannot help but wonder if she was heard properly all the way in the back of the auditorium.

The following Rachmaninov symphony, his second, proved to be the absolute highpoint of the concert. Rachmaninov’s string-dominated orchestration successfully showed off what is perhaps Santa Cecilia’s greatest asset, the strings – and again, specifically the celli. Unlike in the Wesendonck-Lieder, Pappano showed a fine sense of direction throughout the symphony, always having a very clear idea of where phrases were headed and what to do with them. It might be keen sense of direction that made the slow third movement seem ever so slightly rushed, albeit absolutely gorgeous. If I have to pick out one thing that lacked from this most excellent performance, it was the general lack of brass. The brass – especially the low brass, as in the Puccini – didn’t manage to project over the strings, which resulted in a muffled quality to the overall sound, not suitable at all for Rachmaninov’s generally very loud brass writing.

As one might expect, the triumphant finale received no less than (very well-deserved) rapturous applause, and after a few curtain calls, the first encore of the evening was rolled out: The Intermezzo from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut. It was wonderful to hear a more mature Puccini (as in more mature than the Preludio sinfonico), and it was also a most excellent opportunity to show off their most excellent cello section. The final encore was “Nimrod” from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, with which Pappano bade us all a good night. Which it most certainly was.