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The Painters of Rome

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
10/20/2017 -  & October 22, 2017 (Boston)
Giuseppe Verdi: Aida: Sinfonia
Sergei Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major, Opus 26
Ottorino Respighi: The Pines of Rome – The Fountains of Rome

Martha Argerich (Pianist)
Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Sir Antonio Pappano (Music Director and Conductor)

Sir. A. Pappano (© EMI Classics)

Just as we turn to the Vienna Phil for first Brahms, and the Munich Phil for first Strauss, so the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia played the original Respighi tone-poems under the baton of their composer. So one most imagine that those works played last night were as authentic as you can get.

Multi-century-old opera houses are legion in Italy. And while the Santa Cecilia Orchestra is a mere 110 years old, it was the first in Italy devoted exclusively to the symphonic repertoire. Yet what a plethora of luminaries have graced its podiums in that time. Mahler, Debussy, Strauss, Stravinsky, Sibelius and of course Arturo Toscanini have all raised their batons. And while orchestral works were their main goal, London-born Music Director Antonio Pappano has blazed forth a new operatic repertory for them.

No opera was heard last night, alas, but Maestro Pappano did unearth a rare work by Giuseppe Verdi to open the concert. The Aida Sinfonia was actually the first overture to the opera, but it was quickly withdrawn by the composer (he imagined the drama would divert from the opera itself), and he substituted the work we now know as its trenchant overture.

Long buried away, the Sinfonia–a good 15 minutes worth–was unearthed by Toscanini, and was given its first performance here, beginning with that soft love theme in the strings, and continuing on with several other themes from the opera. No Celeste Aida, no Triumphal March, but conductor Pappano didn’t need it. In what has been categorized as a “symphonic poem”, the orchestra rose to the occasion, the volatile Mr. Pappano let the group do its stuff and–if part of the music sounded like it should be played in a bandstand instead of a concert hall–the ending of brass, strings and timpani offered some grandly kitschy music.

The following Prokofiev Third Piano Concerto was a celebration. A celebration of 50 years since Martha Argerich performed this under the baton of Claudio Abbado, and a legend was born.

Ms. Argerich has soared into the pantheon of pianists these days, her hair is grey, her pout is a thing of the past, and the Prokofiev is a fiery today as that first incredible performance recording.

Then again, she had the ideal adoring audience in Carnegie Hall last night. Before she placed a second foot on the stage, the crowd stood waving and cheering and almost crying at her entrance. God couldn’t have asked for a greater entrance. And this Goddess of the Piano gave a rare smile before sailing into one of her trademark works

Sailing? No, if hurricanes could be nonchalant, that was Ms. Argerich. On the surface, one wonders at her fingers working up and down the octaves. Then one notices, amidst the technical wonders, she is saying something, at times thundering away, at times fondling a phrase, at times rushing through and pausing for a second.

For that first movement, she had the volition of a race-car driver, one in perfect control of her instrument. In the second-movement variations, this was Ms. Argerich pausing, coloring, printing it out with darkness and light, For the finale, one didn’t have to think any more.

For after half a century, her art and her craft are indisputable. She is a wonder, and the music is a wonder. If a painting could be made with lightning, this was Martha Argerich.

Of courses the cheers now were louder. So what would the artist do? She is notoriously averse to any solo performances this day, so how would she play an encore?

That was even a grander moment. Ms. Argerich and conductor Pappano sat together on the piano-stool and did the terrific original four-hand Empress of the Pagodas from Ravel’s Mother Goose.

This “sold-out” vision of the concert came to an end in the intermission. Many a visitor who came for Martha Argerich probably felt that two Respighi works would be...a stain on their all-too-perfect tastes.

They missed a lot. Charles Dutoit had done a whole evening Respighi some years, and it was a blazoningly loud, stunning performance. Mr. Pappano had the tradition of its first orchestra here–an orchestra which he himself as described as “a highly alcoholic Italian wine!” Thus, the Fountains of Rome brought forth not only water (yes, harps and bells) but all the foliage.

(Poor Respighi had to use a recording of nightingales. His predecessor of 300 years before, Monteverdi, imitated an eagle with crazy string playing as we heard in Ulysses the night before.)

As for Pines of Rome, I believe any conductor conducting an orchestra more notable for its glorious sound that its pinpoint accuracy, would be in heaven. Mr. Pappano urged his orchestra on through the children playing in Villa Borghese, the somber Catacombs and the moonlit Janiculum.

For the finale triumphal march, he pulled out all the architectural stops. Horns standing in the back of the stage, choirs of trumpets in the highest balcony, and the sounds for which any Caesar would have offered their Empire.

I imagine Mr. Pappano and Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia would have given an encore or two, but I was not greedy, and departed–literally–on the highest possible note!

Harry Rolnick



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