If you’re looking for modern equivalents of Renaissance Man, look no further than Leonard (actually born Louis) Bernstein: educator and pedagogue, animator and conductor, political activist and campaigner, pianist and composer. How appropriate therefore that Sir Antonio Pappano, conducting the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia from Rome, chose to pair Bernstein’s First Symphony with Mahler’s First, since it was Bernstein who more than anybody else initiated the Mahler Renaissance back in the 1960s.

Sir Antonio Pappano conducts the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Sir Antonio Pappano conducts the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The previous evening Esa-Pekka Salonen had transitioned seamlessly from Webern to Mahler. That worked. Pappano’s choice of a bleeding chunk of Haydn with which to open his concert and then segue immediately into the following piece, with his soloist already in her place from the start, didn’t. Here there was no stylistic connection and no obvious liturgical link either, since Bernstein’s Jeremiah is all about what he called his “crisis of faith”. Early on in that first movement, marked Largamente, a sense of anguish is quickly established, thus forming a thematic bridge to what was to follow. Supported by his excellent horns, weighty strings and precise but never aggressively assertive lower brass, the repeated cries of despair were emphatically delivered by Pappano.

The middle movement, the quickest of the three and brightly optimistic in mood, is as close as you’ll get to neo-classical Stravinsky, with energy and controlled power driving the skipping figurations for strings and wind. Towards the end the unashamedly Romantic Bernstein allows himself the luxury of wearing his heart on his sleeve and Pappano rightly drew out the emotional quality of the music. As he and his impressive soloist Elizabeth DeShong also did in the third and longest of the movements, the Lamentation, which forms the heart of this symphonic piece with its Hebrew text detailing the cry of Jeremiah as he mourns for his beloved Jerusalem, now ruined, pillaged and dishonoured. DeShong’s dark, smoky tones together with the richness of her upper and lower registers gave this Lamentation an extraordinary operatic-like power, heard to particular advantage in her impassioned fortissimo outburst at “Súru tamē, karu lamo, súru, súru, al tiga-u!”.

Elizabeth DeShong, Sir Antonio Pappano and the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Elizabeth DeShong, Sir Antonio Pappano and the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Pappano’s Rome orchestra is an unquestionably fine ensemble. It has strings which in their sweetness and succulence recall the painter Paolo Veronese, an amazingly reliable and softly expressive horn section, wind players that can create bubbling sounds like those produced in a gently simmering pot and a brass section that regards reticence as a virtue. Even at full-pelt in the loudest phases of Mahler’s First Symphony, this orchestra never sounded raucous. Above all, after more than a decade of close co-operation, Pappano and his players have a marked and instinctive feel for internal balance.

The symphony started beautifully hushed, almost inaudibly so with those sustained high-octave As, conjuring up a distant mist from which the first shapes would slowly begin to appear, warmed by the gradual accumulation of sunbeams. This lyrical warmth suffused much of the opening movement. Even at the point where Mahler introduces a reference to one of his Songs of a Wayfarer, not even the trumpet fanfares at “Ging heut' Morgen über's Feld” were picked out for additional highlighting: everything had its place and nothing was allowed to jostle for undue attention. But magical though these sounds all were, the pastoral idyll is just one element in the equation. There was no hint of any ambiguity, a quality on which Mahler constantly feeds, and when he introduces his cantabile cello theme in the development section, I waited in anticipation of the implied yearning as those instruments step forward – an instance of the Romantic spirit infusing German music – but those heart-tugging sighs hardly made their presence felt at all.

Pappano moved straight into the Scherzo at a fairly brisk tempo. What was missing here was a degree of earthiness in the strings, a feeling of the feet making pronounced contact with the ground in the Ländler rhythms, but the trio section was handsomely contrasted, led once again by the splendid horns. In the slow movement with much beautifully soft and expressive string playing nothing seemed forced or imposed from without; even the klezmer elements were kept in check.

By the time the finale announced its arrival, you just knew that the heavy brass would not give vent to their rage or deliver any snarls. The whole movement was like much of what had preceded it: played with a sweet lyrical intensity that commanded respect, as much for the coherence of the conductor’s vision as for the security of the playing. However, there was no sense of desolation, none of the glimpses of the dark abyss below, little indeed of the spiritual battle which underlies Mahler’s conception. As if to emphasise what they are really good at, the first of the encores was one of Respighi’s Antiche danze ed Arie, quite ravishingly played.

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