Verdi, Puccini and Ponchielli don’t exactly get out of the pit much, Italian composers famed almost exclusively for their operatic output. Sir Antonio Pappano doesn’t get out of the pit much either, at least in London, where he’s usually found in his subterranean Covent Garden home. But as Music Director of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia since 2005, Pappano has a proven track record as a very fine orchestral conductor. Here with the London Symphony Orchestra, he offered non-operatic works by the Italian trio, including Puccini’s Messa di Gloria, revealing qualities both familiar and unfamiliar.

Sir Antonio Pappano
© Musacchio & Ianniello

Amilcare Ponchielli’s big operatic hit was La Gioconda, famous – thanks to Disney’s dancing hippos in tutus – for its ballet sequence, The Dance of the Hours. Pappano opened his programme with Ponchielli’s Elegia, a short work, published posthumously. From a delicate, haunting opening, the LSO strings soon blossomed to their glossy, sumptuous best as Ponchielli’s cantabile lines made way for restless themes and a sense of turmoil; it turns out that you can take the opera composer out of the pit, but not the operatic temperament from his music. Pappano, totally in tune with the mood, sculpted big romantic themes in the air, snapping his baton during one emotional sweep.

Verdi composed his only string quartet in 1873 simply because he was bored during rehearsals for the Naples premiere of Aida and had some time to kill. He hesitated to allow it to be published, fearing comparisons with quartets of the German tradition. True to form, the critics were none too kind, particularly about the central movements which were too, well, operatic – a lilting serenade and a frantic Prestissimo which sounds like part of the ballet music he’d composed for the Paris revision of Macbeth. The Scherzo finale is a brilliant little fugue, the same device Verdi would later use to conclude his final opera, Falstaff. Arranged for full string orchestra, the whole quartet bursts with Italianate sunshine, particularly under Pappano’s passionate direction, sounding not a thousand miles away from Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence.

Puccini’s Messa di Gloria was a youthful work, a graduation exercise completed in 1880, so we can perhaps excuse him for it not sounding much like the Puccini we know and love. If anything, it’s Verdi who sprang to mind more than once during the LSO’s fiery performance. The Gloria in excelsis Deo veered from the jaunty to the jubilant, its brassy martial tone not unlike the Triumphal Scene from Verdi’s Aida. The men opening the Qui tollis peccata mundi could have been Ramfis and his fellow priests; the Crucifixus could have featured members of the Inquisition from Don Carlos. Only in the last three minutes of this 45-minute work does Puccini sound like Puccini… largely because he later recycled the music of the tenor–baritone Agnus Dei duet as the little madrigal in Act 2 of Manon Lescaut.

The London Symphony Chorus was on tremendous form in what amounts to a heavy workout, fervent in the Credo, joyous in the Sanctus. Benjamin Bernheim displayed a beautiful mezza voce in the few numbers Puccini gives to the tenor, especially the Et incarnatus est. The baritone has even less to do, but Gerald Finley – despite a false entry – applied his honeyed tones to a beautiful Benedictus. Puccini’s mass isn’t the greatest work, but Pappano’s advocacy was sincere and most persuasive to crown a wonderful evening.