Italian Symphony … Roma amor … Pines of Romes

Symphony No.4 in A, Op.90 (Italian)
La donna del lago – Mura felici … Elena! Oh tu, che chiamo!
La Cenerentola – Nacqui all’affanno, al pianto … Non più mesta
Maxwell Davies
Roma amor
Pines of Rome

Vivica Genaux (mezzo-soprano)

BBC Philharmonic
Gianandrea Noseda

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 6 August, 2009
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Sir Peter Maxwell DaviesAnyone already familiar with Peter Maxwell Davies’s Roma amor (1998) might have taken a questioning glance at the 37-minute timing given in the Proms prospectus (and again at that duration’s reiteration in the concert programme). In the event Gianandrea Noseda’s conducting of it hovered around the recalled 30 minutes. Furthermore the prospectus’s description of it as a “serenade” seemed wide of the mark for a piece that suggests (in the first of the three movements), and to quote the composer, “the bloodiness of Ancient Rome, the corruption and cruelty of the Papacy, and the enigma of 20th-century Fascism: it is abrupt and violent.”

Scored for a large orchestra (including harp, celesta, organ, five trumpets, four trombones, two tubas, two contrabass bassoons, contrabass clarinet and a generous array of percussion), Roma amor can be sinister, sinewy, fantastical, beguiling, atmospheric and comic, the composer (sometimes with Ivesian overlays) as story-teller and picture-postcard illustrator as well as musically uncompromising (some of the searing climaxes could be transplanted into one of his demanding symphonies) and touching.

Gianandrea NosedaThis wide range of styles maybe doesn’t add up (however recognisably ‘Max’ all of the gestures may now be, as well as his trademark use of plainsong). However, Roma amor is an attractive collage (one inspired when Max returned to Rome in the 1990s having studied there forty years earlier with Goffredo Petrassi) and incident packed. The performance, with Sir Peter in attendance, was impressively secure, the many solos confidently taken, that for viola opening the nocturnal second movement reminding of the corresponding part of Vaughan Williams’s A London Symphony, and a figure in the celesta that occurs in the first movement could be easily worked into ‘Neptune’ from Holst’s The Planets!

This Italy-centred concert had begun with Mendelssohn’s ‘Italian’ Symphony and was hard-driven in the outer movements (the usually-welcome repeat of the first-movement exposition here proving a mixed blessing) in which machine-like accuracy allowed little room for expressive flexibility (and not all details made it through clearly enough), the middle movements faring better, the second one appropriately shadowy in its tread, the third taking some while (until the da capo in fact) to find its elegance, but with some lovely horn- and flute-playing in the central section.

Pines of Rome was ebullient and suggestive (and left in no doubt Respighi’s fabulous orchestration) and included wonderfully sensitive solos from a trumpeter (off-stage) and from clarinettist John Bradbury, the recorded nightingale also chirruping magically from on-high and far-away. However, the Royal Albert Hall organ (which had been finely registered and balanced in Roma amor) now took on a domination in its brief appearances that tipped the scales too much to its pipes, far too loud, and aggressive-sounding, and detracting from the whole, the final section (as the ghostly legions of Ancient Rome march the Appian Way) not implacable enough, and, with extra brass – as supplied by musicians of the Royal Northern College of Music – too self-consciously spectacular.

Vivica Genaux. Photograph: Virgin Classics/Harry HeleotisIf the London weather was inclement (to say the least, but it probably rains heavily for hours on end in Rome, too), then inside the Royal Albert Hall it was time for vocal fireworks, not that Alaska-born Vivica Genaux seeks attention despite her remarkable precision and immaculate delivery of decoration and rhythmic divisions; such technical bravura is but a means to an end, here vivid characterisation and variety, adapting to the ‘trouser-role’ of Malcolm and then to the put-upon Cenerentola, Genaux bringing presence, dramatic weight and delightful projection to her portrayals, beautifully accompanied, too, with clarity, dexterity and a twinkle in the eye.

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