This week, musicians the world over celebrated their patron, St Cecilia. What better way to mark it than a hymn of praise from the Italian orchestra that bears her name, the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia? Conducted by Kazuki Yamada, they performed Mendelssohn’s Lobgesang (Hymn of Praise), otherwise known as his Second Symphony, in Rome’s Sala Santa Cecilia. And to top it all off, one of the soloists was a Cecilia too – the superb South African soprano Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha. With such a line-up, things augured well. 

Ann Hallenberg and Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha
© Musacchio, Ianniello & Pasqualini

Indeed, the patron saint would have smiled upon her namesake, for Rangwanasha was in marvellous voice. Lesser sopranos would have been taxed by Yamada’s slow tempo in “Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele”, but she sailed through it gloriously. Anyone who heard the soprano in Verdi’s Requiem at the BBC Proms last summer will know she has a large voice, but she uses it sensitively, reining it in to balance Ann Hallenberg’s lighter, softer mezzo in their duet “Ich harrete des Herrn” (I wait upon the Lord). Tenor Werner Güra brought a Lieder singer’s care to diction in his declamatory interventions. 

Kazuki Yamada
© Musacchio, Ianniello & Pasqualini

Mendelssohn’s work is a curious one. It starts out as a symphony, but after three movements it morphs into a cantata, a sprawling one at that. As such, it’s a tricky beast to tame and Yamada was over-reverential in his handling. He adopted a big-boned, weighty approach, coming in at just over 70 minutes. There were moments of tenderness – Stefano Novelli’s gorgeous clarinet postlude to the first “movement” of the sinfonia section being one – but the following Allegretto un poco agitato, although balletic, was far too smooth, not agitato at all. And how the excellent Coro dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, full of heart, sustained the chorale Nun danket alle Gott at such a slow pace was a hugely impressive mystery. 

The Coro e Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia
© Musacchio, Ianniello & Pasqualini

This Lobgesang certainly had a sense of grandeur that the work can take. Schubert’s sunny Fifth Symphony, alas, cannot withstand the same approach. Yamada’s reading lacked energy. The Santa Cecilia strings – 40 of them! – certainly sounded plush and their sense of attack in the finale was rewarding, but such heavy leather upholstery swamped the woodwind contributions. Leader Andrea Obiso played sweetly in the third movement’s relaxed Trio section. 

But the second movement? The tempo marking Andante is often interpreted as “walking pace”. When I was learning the clarinet, my teacher likened it to “Andiamo!” as in a purposeful “Let’s go for pizza!” Schubert’s marking is Andante con moto – as in “I’m famished… let’s go for pizza!” I can only conclude that these Italians just weren’t very hungry.