La Scena Musicale

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Pappano and Balatsch Triumph with Beethoven's Missa Solemnis

Classical Travels
This Week in Italy

Beethoven's Missa Solemnis has always had a reputation for being monumental and impossibly difficult to perform - especially for the chorus. The difficulty stems in part from the fact that the work dates from late in Beethoven's life, by which time he was completely deaf and almost totally oblivious to the natural limits of the human voice. The great 'et vitam venturi' fugue in the "Credo" is a killer for sopranos and is rarely done well, particularly in "live" performance.

A recording of the piece that I have always treasured - one which still stands as an incomparable achievement - was done by Toscanini with the NBC Symphony and a chorus trained by Robert Shaw.

I once had the opportunity to ask Shaw how he had prepared his sopranos for the challenges of the 'et vitam venturi'; with typical modesty he responded that what one hears on the recording is pretty much an illusion, with the singers letting the orchestra do much of the heavy lifting.

In Rome this week, Maestro Antonio Pappano (photo: right) tackled the Missa Solemnis with the chorus and orchestra of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia and there was nothing illusory about his achievement. The chorus, prepared by the legendary Viennese choirmaster Norbert Balatsch, was magnificently fearless.

The acoustics of the Sala Santa Cecilia in the Auditorium Parco della Musica are somewhat problematic, but the volume and accuracy of the 80-member chorus was remarkable by any standard.

While Maestro Pappano has been building a solid reputation as chief conductor at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, he is also much-admired in Italy for his work with the country's leading orchestra. Several weeks ago, EMI released a live recording of the Verdi Requiem by Pappano and the Santa Cecilia orchestra and chorus. It has received rave reviews.

Beethoven's Missa Solemnis is a very different kind of challenge. That too, Pappano met with distinction. Obviously familiar with all the trouble spots in this work, he took the time to sort them out in rehearsal; this performance was meticulously prepared.

Was it Pappano who encouraged the use of natural (i.e. no valves) trumpets here for a more authentic sound? His trumpeters appeared to have no problem at all with these demanding instruments, and the pure but penetrating sound was impressive.

He might also have encouraged his timpanist to use harder sticks more often in this piece, and play a more prominent role. Throughout the performance I had the impression the orchestra could have played much louder without coming close to covering the chorus, especially in the climaxes at the end of the "Gloria" and the "Credo".

This is where the acoustic deficiencies of the Sala Santa Cecilia come into play. I was sitting about half way back on the ground floor - surely a pretty good location - but the basses in the orchestra scarcely registered at all and the other string sections, for the most part, didn't fare much better. Concertmaster Carlo Maria Parazzoli was reasonably prominent in his extended solo in the Benedictus - he played beautifully - but the strings generally lacked warmth and presence.

This is a fairly common failing in most modern concert halls and in this respect the Sala Santa Cecilia is typical. It may be that at 2,800 seats, the hall is simply too big. I had anticipated better acoustics when I settled into my seat at the start of the concert and marveled at the fine wooden surfaces evident everywhere, including the ceiling.

Soloists for this performance were soprano Emma Bell, contralto Anna Larsson, tenor Roberto Sacca, and bass Georg Zeppenfeld. Bell's sound seemed unfocussed. Zeppenfeld could hardly be heard at all, except for his solo at the beginning of the "Agnus Dei".

The excellent programme notes revealed that Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis" had its first performance in Italy in 1924, with the Santa Cecilia orchestra conducted by Bernardino Molinari. Since then, this orchestra has made the piece part of its basic repertoire, presenting it on no fewer than eighteen occasions under conductors such as Victor de Sabata, Eugen Jochum, Carlo Maria Giulini, Giuseppe Sinopoli and Wolfgang Sawallisch. Norbert Balatsch has been the chorus master for every performance - five of them - given over the past twenty-five years.

On the whole, Pappano's performance of the Missa Solemnis was impressive. The choral work was outstanding and the discipline of his reading was altogether admirable. Tempi were well-considered and when they were a little quicker than usual, control was never in doubt.

In the darker moments of the work, however, I felt that Pappano's discipline seemed more than a little unyielding. This was especially true in the "Agnus Dei". This final movement of the Missa Solemnis has disappointed many a listener over the years. It is often felt to be abrupt and unsatisfying.

This, surely, is a place where the conductor must pay less attention to what the score says or doesn't say, and must enter into the spirit of the composer's vision.

Beethoven's 'dona nobis pacem' (give us peace) comes from the depths of the composer's soul and needs to be performed accordingly - with phrasing a little more expansive and emotional in the final bars. Pappano's reading was true to the letter of the score but missed the meaning of it all.

These disappointing final bars notwithstanding, one left the Sala Santa Cecilia grateful for having heard a superbly prepared Missa Solemnis in which Beethoven's fearsome technical challenges were met with fine musicianship.

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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Knowlton Festival 2009: "Bel Canto Greatest Hits" with Young Singers from the Santa Cecilia Academy in Rome

by Paul E. Robinson

One of the unique features of the Knowlton Festival (Québec) is the collaboration with the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia (ANSC), one of Italy’s leading music schools. The president of ANSC, Bruno Cagli, is involved in planning for the Knowlton Festival, and every year he includes performances by some of his outstanding students in the festival programme. Monday night we heard six of them accompanied by the Festival Orchestra directed by Carlo Rizzari.

The concert was a sort of “Bel Canto Greatest Hits”, similar to the one presented last year by June Anderson and some ANSC students. Without a star of Anderson’s stature on the bill, however, it lost some of its audience appeal. With this in mind, the festival organizers might have considered reduced ticket prices. After all, an average price of $100 a seat is a lot to pay for a concert by students - however promising – whether they are from Rome or Montréal.

Maestro Rizzari also has a connection with the ANSC. He is the assistant conductor of its orchestra. One might assume that the ANSC orchestra is a ‘student orchestra’ but one would be wrong. The Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia Symphony Orchestra is one of the best orchestras in Italy. Its current music director is Antonio Pappano and conductors of the stature of Masur, Eschenbach, Temirkanov, Tilson Thomas and Nagano appear with it regularly. Bernstein was a frequent guest conductor and made several recordings with the orchestra.

Festival Orchestra, Rizzari & Sparkling Rossini Overtures
On this night, Rizzari was in charge of the Festival Orchestra, which had already distinguished itself in the previous night’s performance of La Sonnambula. Most of the musicians are Québec players, but the concertmaster is Riccardo Minasi, a well-known Italian soloist and early music specialist. Minasi teaches at the Conservatorio Bellini in Palermo and, earlier this year, took up a position as associate director of the Helsinki Baroque Orchestra. Presumably, the idea of engaging Minasi was to provide expertise in the area of bel canto style within the orchestra. So far the results have been impressive. Last night, the orchestra again gave us long singing lines and excellent precision, accompanied the singers with exceptional sensitivity and, on its own, contributed sparkling performances of two Rossini overtures.

Singers Delight Audience with Bel Canto “Hits”
With respect to the singers, I would say that they all displayed admirable training, but not much individuality – with one notable exception. And while this programme concentrated on bel canto repertoire, not one of the six seemed, in my opinion, outstandingly gifted in this idiom.

The notable exception was tenor Antonio Poli (photo: right). This young man has a voice of extraordinary natural beauty and he uses it with remarkable elegance and maturity. Poli and baritone Pedro Josè Quiralte Gómez sang beautifully in the famous duet from Bizet’s The Pearlfishers, and in the quartet from Verdi’s Rigoletto, Poli really came into his element. His breath control and phrasing were outstanding and even in the loudest passages, there was never any sense of strain. I suspect that Poli will go on to a major career singing lyric roles in Mozart and early Verdi.

For the record, the other singers taking part were soprano Paola Leggeri, mezzo-soprano Anna Goryacheva and baritone Sergio Vitale. Their performances were certainly competent, but generally too studied to really come alive; for example, soprano Rosa Feola’s traversal of an aria from Rossini’s La Donna del Lago. Other interpretations were so restrained that I began to suspect the teachers at the ANSC of having actively discouraged any expression of passion or personality. It’s all very well to insist on the purity of bel canto style but in the final analysis, what makes music come alive is the combination of discipline and individuality. There was not much of the latter on display last night.

That said, it’s always a pleasure to hear young singers. This extraordinary collaboration between Knowlton and Rome is at the heart of the Knowlton Festival, and gives audiences an opportunity to hear voices trained at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, arguably the ultimate authority in bel canto style. Therein lies the excitement and the appeal of last night’s concert. What will we hear? Tomorrow’s stars? Possibly! The joy of discovery!

The audience that turned up last night numbered about 300 in a tent which has been filled to a capacity of 850 at previous events. If applause and standing ovations are a gauge of the success of a concert, the evening was definitely a success.

Getting to the Festival Site
If you’re planning to join the music-lovers who have already discovered the Knowlton Festival, be forewarned; you’ll have a bit of a challenge getting to the festival site. You’ll be parking your cars in a central location in Knowlton – a big field next to the Brome Lake Duck Farm – then walking across the field to the school busses lined up to transport you (5-7 minute ride) along narrow winding gravel roads to the Chapiteau (tent) a couple of miles away. There is no parking at the site itself. For the most part, the system works well, and the Knowlton volunteers greeting and directing traffic on site are cheerful and engaging. The weather thus far has not been too problematic.

This odyssey becomes more challenging, however, if the busses are not running smoothly and if the weather is not cooperative. Last night, it poured rain and I suspect that the prospect of getting soaked on the way to the concert deterred many people from attending.

Coming Next: Tuesday night the period music specialists ensemble, Les Violons du Roy, plays Handel, and Wednesday night pianist Stephen Kovacevich gives a recital of works by Bach, Schumann and Beethoven. For more information check the festival website.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music, both available at

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