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The early visiting orchestras at this year’s BBC Proms are coming from far and wide. No sooner had the Buskaid Soweto String Ensemble departed back to South Africa than the Orchestra and Chorus of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia of Rome turned up on Monday for an all-Italian concert of Berio and Rossini.
It is interesting to encounter Antonio Pappano at the head of his Italian orchestra. Born in London of Italian parents, Pappano has had a mixed cultural upbringing that is perfectly reflected in his current posts as music director of the Royal Opera in London and the Accademia di Santa Cecilia.
He chose to open this Prom with Berio’s Sinfonia, dating from 1969, when it had its first UK performance at the Proms, with the composer conducting. The piece has not aged well. Seen as a summing-up of classical music past, present and future, Sinfonia involves fleeting snatches of memorable tunes heard through a foggy haze. The tunes come courtesy of Mahler, Stravinsky, Ravel and others; Berio supplied the fog. Various intellectual texts are spoken over the music – or, rather, under it, as they were inaudible here, despite having the Swingle Singers, present in 1969, on hand again. At least Pappano and the orchestra gave the score some brilliance where they could.
From Rossini we had the Stabat Mater, sturdily performed, especially by the Chorus of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia. Italian choruses are different from English ones, singing with a red-blooded vigour that sounds as if every member could have a career in opera if they wanted. It was a shame they did not bring an all-Italian quartet of soloists with them. The best of the four was American mezzo Joyce DiDonato, whose golden voice easily filled the hall. Colin Lee was the sometimes graceful tenor, Ildar Abdrazakov the burly bass, and Janice Watson gallantly stepped in to replace an ailing Emma Bell as soprano.
Pappano worked hard to galvanise his performers, but the results paled beside what the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment achieved on period instruments recently. There the finale crackled with the fires of hell. Here the embers merely glowed.
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