Filarmonica della Scala in New York

Lohengrin – Prelude to Act III
Die Walküre – Siegmund Heiß ich und Siegmund bin ich!
Fontane di Roma
Pini di Roma

Ben Heppner (tenor)

Filarmonica della Scala
Riccardo Chailly

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 13 October, 2007
Venue: Carnegie Hall, New York City

Riccardo ChaillyLed by Riccardo Chailly, Filarmonica della Scala, which is celebrating the 25th-anniversary of its founding, came to New York to conclude its first North American tour. This gala benefit concert for Fondo per l’Ambiente Italiano (FAI), the National Trust for Italy, marked the orchestra’s Carnegie Hall debut. (La Scala symphony musicians last visited this continent under Arturo Toscanini some 85 years ago.)

The Wagnerian half of the concert was well programmed and superbly performed. After Chailly and the orchestra got the evening off to a brilliant and stirring start with the Prelude to Act Three of “Lohengrin“, Heppner gave a sensitive rendition of the Wesendonck-Lieder and a thrilling performance of the conclusion of Act One of “Die Walküre”.

Although Heppner is best known for his operatic performances, he also boasts a wide and varied song repertoire. In the Wesendonck-Lieder, he brought his skills as a recitalist to bear on music that shows a side of Wagner quite different from the Heldentenor roles that Heppner often plays. Indeed, Wagner originally composed these songs for a female voice and piano, and only the last of the five songs, ‘Träume’, was set for orchestra by the composer himself. Felix Mottl subsequently provided the remaining orchestrations. The orchestral ensemble for these songs included much smaller brass and wind sections tha for the “Lohengrin“ and “Die Walküre“ excerpts.

The strings predominated in the gentle accompaniment to ‘Der Engel’ (The Angel), with the solo violin’s rising tones depicting an angel bearing the singer’s spirit heavenward. Heppner’s voice rang out beautifully, remaining in excellent balance with the orchestra and never sounding forced or strained. In the animated ‘Stehe still!’ (Be Still!), the second of the five songs, he was resonant at the low end of his range and thrilling at the top, with seamless transitions in between. The orchestra’s string sections played exceptionally in ‘Im Treibhaus’ (In the Greenhouse), with the cellos and double basses richly resonant in the introduction and a beautiful viola solo accompanying Heppner, whose vocal line seemed more narrative than melodic, however. ‘Im Treibhaus’ is one of two Wesendonck songs that Wagner identified as studies for “Tristan und Isolde”. This song influenced the Prelude to Act Three of that opera, and its Act Two ‘Love Duet’ is based on ‘Träume’.

Ben Hepner. Photograph: Henry GrossmanHeldentenor mode as he portrayed the jubilant Siegmund. Chailly got wonderful and exciting playing from his band, with the trumpets first blazing gloriously above the orchestra with the sword motive as Siegmund names the sword “Nothung” and draws it from the tree, and then joining the trombones in the sorrowful motive of the Volsungs as Siegmund implores Sieglinde to follow him. Then (omitting Seiglinde’s brief response), Heppner and the orchestra plunged into the breathless finish in which Siegmund declares Sieglinde to be his sister and bride, and hails the flourishing of the Volsung bloodline.

In the second half Chailly led colorful performances of Ottorino Respighi’s The Fountains of Rome and The Pines of Rome). Each of these works presents four evocative portraits of Roman locales.

Portraying ‘The Fountain of Valle Giulia at Dawn’, Chailly painted a soft texture with muted strings, as solos on clarinet, oboe and cello completed the pastoral scene. Sudden horn-calls led to swirling figures in the strings and winds, representing the frolicking nymphs and tritons of ‘The Triton Fountain in the Morning’, with Chailly’s phrasing exquisitely capturing the movement’s energetic spirit. ‘The Fountain of Trevi at Midday’ was quite dramatic and powerfully played (even without the required organ to underpin the bass line), and the portrayal of ‘The Villa Medici Fountain at Sunset’ was quite atmospheric, with a mournful duet for flute and cor anglais, gentle contributions from strings and celesta, and the sound of church bells that faded away as the sun went down.

Chailly and the Filarmonica continued to provide spectacular orchestral colours in The Pines of Rome, beginning with the brilliant opening passages of ‘The Pines of the Villa Borghese’ in which Respighi sought to portray children playing games that recall ancient battles. ‘The Pines Near a Catacomb’ built inexorably upon the slow opening theme in the cellos and basses, then ultimately died away. ‘The Pines of the Janiculum’ featured piano and wind solos augmented by the recorded birdsong of a nightingale to depict the Janiculum hill by moonlight. Finally, ‘The Pines of the Appian Way’ summoned images of ancient Roman legions marching along this vital route, with the extra-large brass section bringing the work to a shattering climax.

As encores, Chailly led the orchestra in the overture to Rossini’s “William Tell” and then in Jukebox – a jazzy section from Nino Rota’s La Strada ballet score. That work by the renowned composer of many outstanding film scores had originally been programmed for this concert but was replaced by ‘Fountains’. The Rota piece was so well received that Chailly had the orchestra play it again.

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