LSO/Pappano – 9 July

The Swan of Tuonela (Lemminkäinen Legends, Op.22)
Symphony No.7 in C, Op.105
Ringed by the Flat Horizon
La mer

London Symphony Orchestra
Antonio Pappano

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 9 July, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The London Symphony Orchestra’s “By George!” retrospective ended with George Benjamin’s music sandwiched between masterpieces by Sibelius and Debussy: two composers who, born just three years apart, might be said to represent the aesthetic poles between which Benjamin operates.

Certainly his Ringed by the Flat Horizon has ’aged well’ since its premiere 23 years ago. Then, it was the scintillating sonorities and originality of conception that impressed: factors that relate audibly to those qualities Benjamin admires in Debussy and Sibelius respectively. Inspired by a photograph of a thunderstorm over the New Mexico desert, as well as by TS Eliot’s “The Wasteland” (from which the title is taken), this is music which expands emotionally as it develops organically, and it is a masterstroke that the cumulatively dramatic first half equates to the coming rather than the arrival of thunder – reality made the more potent by anticipation. When it does emerge, out of sombrely impressive chords, that thunder seems an occurrence less real than when prefigured in the mind’s ear – a telling instance of the play with time and memory Benjamin has explored in subsequent works.

The piece was played vividly yet subtly delineated by the LSO and Antonio Pappano, who – whether or not he has previously conducted Benjamin – evinced a real identification with this exacting music. Fine that it was the highlight of the evening, except that the remaining items were far less convincing interpretatively.

As Pappano apparently hears it, The Swan of Tuonela is inescapably the prelude to the opera – The Building of the Boat – that Sibelius abandoned. Textures and dynamics were pressed to relative extremes, undermining the sense of flow necessary in this more than any other of the composer’s orchestral works prior to Pohjola’s Daughter. Christine Pendrill sculpted the cor anglais soliloquy with assurance, but any sense of inner calm was scuppered by the melodrama laminated onto the expression as a whole.

Provocative if unconvincing then, whereas Pappano’s account of Sibelius’s single-movement Seventh Symphony was a dismal distortion of the musical truth. Essentially, it was about transitions failing to cohere, through not being recognised as such. After an opening that was portentous rather than arresting, Pappano proceeded in fits and starts to a blowsy first appearance of the trombone motto. The approach to the ’Vivacissimo’ was embarrassingly ham-fisted, while the wistful strain of the ’Allegro moderato’ section was shot-through with sentimentality. Ruined by insensitive timpani playing, the apotheosis was fulsome indeed – after which the closing reassertion of C major could achieve no more than to wrap-up a structure on course for collapse from the outset.

That Pappano took on a work which, more than any other in the symphonic repertoire, needs guiding through with absolute command over its formal process is surprising – given the total lack of conviction in the outcome. Thinking back to Paavo Berglund’s unerringly right performance here last autumn, it’s easy to be spoilt for comparison, but Pappano’s prowess as an orchestral conductor justifiably led one to expect better.

His account of La mer was considerably more idiomatic. The opening movement emerged robustly yet imaginatively, helped by some poetic wind playing, though the cello recitative mid-way was recklessly gabbled and the closing chorale overbearing rather than inspiring. Pappano combined animation with evocation to telling effect in ’Jeux de vagues’, and put the orchestra through its paces in an exciting if unsubtle finale – additional brass parts (inevitably) included. Compared to John Eliot Gardiner’s correct but chill account earlier in the year, this was far more involving – anyone encountering the piece for the first time would have revelled in the Technicolor vividness. Which, of course, is but a fractional part of what Debussy’s ’three symphonic sketches’ are really about.

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