This is one of the year’s standout orchestral albums and it’s a special treat to catch the ensemble live on these shores so soon after its release.
By Jonathan Blumhofer
One of the two major symphony orchestras the Celebrity Series is presenting this season is the Rome-based Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia (OANSC), which visits Symphony Hall on October 22. Founded in 1908 as the first significant Italian symphony orchestra, it’s boasted an impressive roster of leaders, including Igor Markevitch, Giuseppe Sinopoli, Daniele Gatti, and Myung-Whun Chung. Leonard Bernstein was its honorary conductor over much of the last decade of his life; that position is now held by Yuri Temirkanov. The OANSC’s current music director is Sir Antonio Pappano, who leads the ensemble on its current North American tour, a highlight of which includes a rare appearance by the legendary pianist Martha Argerich.
Serendipitously, conductor, soloist, and orchestra have a new recording out of favorite pieces by Camille Saint-Saëns. Granted, they’re not bringing any music by that composer to Boston (pieces by Verdi, Prokofiev, and Respighi are on Sunday’s Symphony Hall program; the tour’s other concerts feature works by Salvatore Sciarrino and Mahler), but the disc gives a good sense of the high sheen of the orchestra’s technique and the electrifying energy with which it plays. Indeed, the repertoire on the album – the Symphony no. 3 (“Organ”) and The Carnival of the Animals – is familiar enough, but there’s nothing complacent or sleepy about the performances on offer.
Quite the opposite: Pappano and the OANSC turn in a lush, mighty reading of the “Organ” Symphony. Probably no piece of Saint-Saëns’ better captures the two sides of his musical personality – the rigorously contrapuntal Germanic logic of structure and the Gallic sensuality of instrumental colors – than this Symphony.
Here, Pappano and his band tap each about equally. The driving first and third movements are mightily potent, the repeated, antiphonal riffs of the latter jumping out with particular force. Around the music’s rhythmic shell, the score’s cyclic design unfolds with a kind of understated clarity: Pappano lets its Liszt-like motives speak and transform without underlining anything too heavily and the result is an interpretation that’s as organic as it is satisfying.
At the same time, the Symphony’s novel orchestrational touches – in addition to the organ, Saint-Saëns included a piano – sparkle. The former may be the most striking member of the ensemble, but there’s plenty of lush writing for woodwinds and brass (particularly horns) to be found in the piece, too. The OANSC plays them with fervor and passion, especially in the lovely slow movement. As for the climactic moments, well, they’re thrilling, especially the finale, in which Daniele Rossi lets rip a majestic account of the mighty organ part.
The album’s filled out with an altogether brilliant performance of The Carnival of the Animals. It should go without saying that the pianists, Pappano and Argerich, have exceptional chemistry together. They do and their solo movements – “Wild Asses,” “Kangaroos,” and “Pianists” – are tossed off with effortless vigor and warmth.
But, while the pair might get top-billing here, the rest of the ensemble (made up of soloists from the OANSC) plays at the same level of intensity and virtuosity. Violinists Carlo Maria Parazzoli and Alberto Mina toss off the braying leaps of “Characters with Long Ears” with gleeful abandon, cellist Gabriele Geminiani delivers a soulful account of “The Swan,” and Libero Lanzilotta’s reading of the double bass solo in “The Elephant” is about as noble and stately as they come. Flautist Carlo Tamponi shines in “The Aviary” and Stefano Novelli’s two-note refrain in “The Cuckoo in the Depths of the Woods” is marvelously droll.
In all, it’s a superb, fresh reading of this immensely popular and durable score. Argerich has recorded it a couple of times already, most notably about thirty years ago with an all-star cast (Nelson Freire, Gidon Kremer, Mischa Maisky, Tabea Zimmerman, etc.). But the recorded sound here is better and fuller than those earlier discs and that helps draw out the many moments of truly extraordinary ensemble playing.
In both pieces the OANSC acquits itself excellently. This is one of the year’s standout orchestral albums and it’s a special treat to catch the ensemble live on these shores so soon after its release.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.