Since taking the reins of the Academia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in 2005, the Music Director of the Royal Opera House, Antonio Pappano, has led one of the world's most admired and respected orchestras to dizzy heights of success. Under his baton, the Roman ensemble have travelled the globe, made several award-winning recordings and been named one of the '10 Best Orchestras in the World' by Classic FM magazine. Currently on a tour which celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Italian unification, Pappano and Santa Cecilia stopped off at Manchester's Bridgewater Hall on Friday evening, performing a programme of Verdi, Liszt and Respighi for a very enthusiastic audience.

© Sheila Rock
© Sheila Rock

The concert opened with the rarely heard Aida Sinfonia. Verdi wrote the piece in place of an overture for his popular opera, but on hearing its intense drama in rehearsal, immediately withdrew it, worried that it would overshadow the rest of the work. The intense drama that Verdi came to fear is precisely what makes the piece such a perfect choice for Santa Cecilia. In the past, Pappano has compared their lush, full bodied sound to a sweet, highly alcoholic Italian wine, and on hearing them live, I quickly came to understand his booze-based metaphor. They are certainly an orchestra with a talent for the intense.

The Aida Sinfonia built slowly, with soft, haunting strings leading us through the familiar themes of the opera. It grew in intensity with every phrase, reaching a massive crescendo of sound under which the double bass played out a deeply profound, swirling rhythm. At this point, it was impossible to take your eyes off Pappano, who, willing more depth from the bass, stooped until his baton almost touched the floor of the podium. The ending is as dramatic as it gets, with intense, fast strings joining some characteristically Verdi brass and a full percussion section complete with clashing symbols. There was stunned silence in the moments after the piece ended and then the audience erupted with applause, some even offering a standing ovation after just ten minutes of performance.

Next came Liszt's Piano Concerto No.1 in E flat major, one of the compositional aims of which was to bind piano and orchestra together as tightly as possible. Russian superstar pianist Boris Berezovsky, who has collaborated with some of the world's most famous orchestras and composers, joined Pappano and Santa Cecilia to help them achieve this aim. Berezovsky gave a virtuoso performance, but the concerto was certainly more of a partnership than a showcase for the pianist, and orchestral drama was once more a major feature. There are moments of beautiful, soft, tinkling piano, but as with the Aida Sinfonia, the intensity builds slowly and that full bodied Santa Cecilia sound was never far away in a piece that has been described by critic Philip Hall as requiring 'audacious, unhesitating bravura.'

Post interval, it was all about the Italian composer Ottorino Respighi. Respighi was a Professor of the Academia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia himself when he composed his Roman Trilogy of tone poems, and we were lucky enough to hear two of them- Fountains of Rome and Pines of Rome. These are vivid, emotive musical representations of aspects of the city which Santa Cecilia call home, and they took to playing them with gusto. Filling the air with the sound of harps and bells which unmistakably represented sparkling drops of water, they recreated a day in the life of Rome's most famous fountains, moving from the beauty of the monuments at dawn to a a bustling, brass-dominated depiction of the Trevi Fountain at midday and ending with sunset over the Villa Medici.

Their interpretation of Pines of Rome was equally exciting, with the second movement, Pines Near a Catacomb, my personal highlight of the entire evening. It is the most melancholy part of the piece, and yet at the height of its dark drama, it is also strangely uplifting. Once again, it was impossible to watch anything but Pappano, who appeared to drag every drop of drama and energy from the strings during the gorgeous, soaring heights of the piece. As The Pines of Rome reached its fourth and final movement, the sound was so rich and so huge that it felt like being trapped inside the speakers of the world's most fantastic sound system.

By the time it was over, a little of the Italian vibe seemed to have infected the Manchester audience, who jumped to their feet and hammered the floor in the hope of an encore. Pappano, of course, didn't disappoint, announcing that in honour of the Risorgimento, they would play Pas de six from the ballet music of Rossini's William Tell, which they did in characteristically spirited fashion. They followed it with the Intermezzo from Puccini's Manon Lescaut and finally the last part of Dance of the Hours from Ponchielli's La Gioconda. With everyone now on their feet and sounding as if they would be happy to stay all night, Maestro Pappano mimed that he was ready for sleep and exited the stage for the final time, leaving us all in a state of complete wonderment.