Prom 44: 23rd August – Of things sacred and royal

Photo of Antonio Pappano

Sinfonia da Requiem
Four Sacred Pieces
Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat

Yefim Bronfman (piano)

London Symphony Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antonio Pappano

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 23 August, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

In what was probably the hottest day so far at the Royal Albert Hall, this concert was never going to add up to more than the sum of its parts. The LSO had difficulty keeping their instruments in tune; the choir’s performance, though good under the circumstances, was little more than run-of-the-mill.

The Japanese government commissioned Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War. By the time of the proposed premiere, in 1940, the political regime in Japan had changed. Unfortunately for Britten this meant that, despite his outlining the programmatic groundplan in advance, the work was not accepted on the grounds that it did not “express felicitations” and was of “melancholy tone”. Indeed, Sinfonia’s three movements, which play continuously, express an outpouring of Britten’s emotions about war (he was a staunch pacifist) and the death of his parents. The LSO, usually at home with Britten, never really hit the spot this time. Although the percussion were not quite together, the brass interjections in the ’Dies irae’ came off well and in just balance.

As the centenary year of Verdi’s death draws to a close, this season of Prom concerts has done its share to commemorate one of Italy’s most famous sons. It was good to hear Four Sacred Pieces in a concert environment. Antonio Pappano, the Royal Opera House’s new Music Director from the 2002-3 season, was obviously at home conducting a chorus, albeit poor intonation in the ’a cappella’ first and third settings and the bass-voice introduction to the fourth meant a huge sigh of relief whenever the orchestra was playing. On a more positive note, the words were clear and the well-managed crescendo at the end of ’Stabat mater’ gloriously befitted the words: “When my body dies, may my soul be granted the glory of Paradise”.

With the entry of Yefim Bronfman for Beethoven’s ’Emperor’, the sombre mood of the first half was quickly swept away. The opening mini-cadenzas fell tidily beneath Bronfman’s fingers demonstrating a technique that befits an internationally sought-after pianist. If the ’Adagio’ was a little too slow, the finale was light and spacious rather than heavyweight; throughout, there was excellent teamwork between Bronfman and Pappano. One small blemish on a fine performance: given the orchestra was now smaller, it was a pity that the horns were left high above the woodwinds; the balance was unacceptable, a simple repositioning was all that was needed.

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