At first glance, Sir Antonio Pappano was not the obvious choice for a programme of twentieth-century orchestral works. The conductor is established as one of the leading lights of the operatic world, his tenure as Music Director of the Royal Opera House likely to go down as one of the great operatic partnerships of all time, but how would he fare in this tricky repertoire, with all attention focused on the orchestra? Very well, actually. It transpired that the repertoire was a perfect match for his clear technique, demonstrating his ability to create an expressive and emotionally involved performance without losing clarity in the ensemble. Pieces by Rachmaninov, Korngold and Bartók all benefited from Pappano’s focus on lyricism, the conductor determined to emphasise all the elements of Romantic composition he could possibly find.
Rachmaninov’s The Isle of the Dead was written in response to Böcklin’s gloomy painting of the same name, which depicts a coffin making its journey by boat to the sinister island, and is written as a tone poem, where the composition faithfully describes the scene. The composer employs his characteristic rich harmony and various instrumental effects to create an eerie sound world, with the ‘Dies irae’ liturgical theme which has come to represent death for so many composers used to give force to his musical painting. The LSO responded with typical aplomb to the pictorial nature of the piece, becoming almost overwhelming in both volume and activity in the impassioned section where life is finally crushed by the ‘Dies irae’ towards the end of the work.
The Isle of the Dead was composed almost a decade before Rachmaninov’s departure from Russia to the US; however, Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra was written in California a decade after his move from Czechoslovakia. Korngold became a successful Hollywood composer and is now best remembered for these works; even the pieces he composed for live performance have a certain cinematic quality to them. Despite its roots in the Romantic tradition of the Old World, the concerto bears the traits of distinctly American music: it uses simple tunes with folk music origins, driving rhythms, wide, soaring melodies, and lots of tuned percussion: a timbre always so evocative of the music of the USA.
Pappano and Kavakos were perhaps the Korngold dream team: the cryptic wanderings of the violin are often misinterpreted as shapeless, but the pair brought out the heart-on-sleeve Romanticism of the piece wonderfully. Kavakos also excelled during the complex passagework of the first movement’s second theme, where he fought to make musical sense of the section. The entrancing central Romance was beautifully played, although the soloist’s occasional intonation issues began to take their toll on the woodwind section as they tried to match his pitch. The third movement was the particularly successful, partly due to the increased involvement in the writing for orchestra. The LSO really worked to create the sound Korngold had in mind, transforming into an enormous, raucous and very expensive folk band for an enjoyable seven minutes. The other joy of this movement, however, lies in the sheer difficulty of the solo part. Generally the soloist must work extremely hard to ensure that even the most difficult sections seem effortless, however Korngold appears to have had the opposite aim in mind. Following these pyrotechnics, Kavakos really shone in the simple folk melody of the second theme, making it sound incredibly special yet not overcomplicated. An encore of the first movement of Ysaÿe’s Sonata for Solo Violin no. 5 served as reminder of Kavakos’ skill as a virtuoso.
Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra was also written after the composer’s emigration to America. The piece was a commission from the conductor Serge Koussevitzky, intended as a financial lifeline for the struggling composer. Koussevitzky gave Bartók complete freedom in what was to be produced; the result was the composer’s most innovative and popular work. Pappano’s operatic style and technical precision were ideal for the piece: performances often either miss the lyricism always present in Bartók’s writing or fall to pieces attempting to express all the emotion and character within the work. Despite having the ability to create a wonderful range of character, some of the conductor’s tempi were ineffective. The playful second movement, where pairs of wind instruments play jaunty little themes, tended to run away with itself slightly, whereas the Finale failed to excite due to a rather pedestrian tempo. The chance to conduct the LSO in a performance of the Concerto for Orchestra is comparable to being given the opportunity to drive a finely-tuned racecar along a road with no speed limits – it was a pity that Pappano stuck faithfully to the limits imposed on lesser vehicles. The free-floating Elegia was far more successful, with a hauntingly beautiful solo from oboist Guillaume Deshayes and great attention to dynamic detail from the conductor.
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