The suite from Thomas Adès’s chamber opera Powder Her Face (based on the life and scandals of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll) has become quite familiar to London concert audiences over the last couple of years (as conducted by Ang, Daniel, Dohnányi, Keable, and the composer himself, the latter with the LSO). Sir Antonio Pappano spared us nothing in decadence and sleaze for the opening foxtrot, its false steps and high kicks pirouetted by an LSO both gleeful and en pointe
. In a selection completed by a clandestine waltz and a teasing tango, although one admires Adès’s abilities to discombobulate popular dance forms, there is a doubt that it may be a tad too clever.
William Walton’s Viola Concerto (1929/61), played here in the composer’s revision that lost some woodwind instruments and gained a harp, Antoine Tamestit established himself from his opening solo, intimately yearning, and producing a true viola sound. His instrument also buzzed with energy and lithe rhythms, an outgoing rendition alive to volatility that didn’t sacrifice confidentiality. Antonio Pappano, a sovereign supporter of singers, produced a detailed accompaniment, bright, propulsive and languorous – he would do a great job with Walton’s First Symphony – the second movement fizzing and the finale aflame with purpose, aching beauty, a momentous climax and a numbed aftermath. Tamestit was a master of the solo part and he couldn’t have wished for starrier partners.
Antonio Pappano doesn’t often conduct Elgar’s music; indeed only Enigma Variations a while ago. At a time when the composer’s admirers can have new access to all of his acoustic recordings (superbly refurbished on Music & Arts), a fresh view of his magnificent First Symphony is equally welcome. Pappano and the LSO are becoming an irresistible combination. Not everything here quite came off, and timpani strokes could be too loud and bludgeoning (although rolls were thrilling), but Pappano’s clear love for the music shone through as did a determined unfolding of its symphonic trajectory. The first movement enjoyed a Barbirolli-like breadth, the music embracing struggle, angst and impetus – the outpouring of a troubled soul who could also withdraw to an imagined world. After a militaristic scherzo, a big heart on display as it drew to its close, the Adagio was beautifully turned into, the core of the symphony and of this performance, here spacious with a pulse, rapt, tender responses from the LSO taking us to a special place, sending a chill through the system and moistening the eyes. Throughout this compelling reading, immeasurably well played, Pappano’s Elgarian instincts proved to be combustible, virile and loving, and the use of antiphonal violins paid many aural dividends. The finale (beginning with Bruckner 9-like tremolos) was a triumphal vindication of earlier turmoil, eschewing pomposity for a flamboyance that lifted the spirits and will hopefully cue further Elgar (Gerontius?) from a conductor who has a passionate relationship with this great music.