The Rights and Wrongs of Musical Partnerships: Argerich and Pappano in Rome

ItalyItaly Schumann:  Martha Argerich (piano), Orchestra and Chorus of Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Ciro Visco (chorus master), Sir Antonio Pappano  conductor), Sala Santa Cecilia, Parco della Musica, Rome 17.11.2012 (JB)

Schumann: Nachtlied Op. 108 for chorus and orchestra
Piano Concerto Op. 54 in A minor
Symphony no. 2 in C, Op. 61

Schumann’s relationship with the piano would make anyone believe in marriage. He was, of course, wed to the piano in more ways than one: his pianist wife was arguably better known than he in their lifetimes. Schumann was also wed to the singing voice. A bigamist then? Just think of those two song cycles or any number of the lieder. But the piano remains his most devoted instrument (sometimes even superior to the voice writing in the songs). Of all the pianist-composers, his is the work which lies most comfortably under the pianist’s hand. There is a distinct homeliness in these compositions: the piano sounds and feels at home with him and he with the piano. The model marriage. Some might call it a marriage made in heaven.

There is another impressive partnership to report on in this concert: Martha Argerich and Antonio Pappano. They had had a week of rehearsals together to get to know their individual idiosyncrasies. The great Martha has more than a few of these, but Sir Antonio was wonderfully accommodating. She appeared nervous when she first came onto the platform, manipulating the height of the piano stool for a good while and looking displeased with her efforts. This is nearly always a bad sign. Then at the end of the first movement I saw her lips mouthing the words to him, scusati per ….. then my lip reading let me down and I was unable to decode the final word(s). Gracious as ever, Sir Antonio smiled and reassuringly nodded. There was clearly a rapport. In fact, it was in evidence from the start.

She rapped out the concerto’s first theme with her best no-nonsense air. The orchestra answered politely. A perfect balance was established. They were assertive when they needed to be and wonderfully supportive for the rest of the concerto. The slow movement – andantino grazioso– was exactly that, with nicely poised contributions from the orchestra’s wind players and Martha giving her best rippling, articulated accompaniments. The romp home of the allegro vivace brought a deserved standing ovation. All of them in it together. A full house too: close on three thousand audience.

When Schumann writes for a chorus he sounds as though he would rather be somewhere else. Nachtlied is a setting of a charming and somewhat mysterious little poem by Christian Friedrich Hebbel. As we all know from Carnaval, charm and mystery are qualities which find magical expression in Schumann’s writing. But Carnaval is for piano, while Nachtlied is for chorus and orchestra. Alas, this latter is not happy hunting-ground for Schumann. There is every cliché and banality in the book. Its greatest virtue is its brevity: it lasts ten minutes, though feels much longer. The Santa Cecilia Chorus were excellent, as always.

Schumann fares only marginally better with his symphonies. No. 2 was on the programme. It is not just the instrumentation which lacks lustre but the symphonic form does little for Schumann’s undisputed talent. There is a nice little motive at the beginning of the Allegro ma non troppo which follows the ponderous introduction. For a moment it sounded like his friend, Mendelssohn (who knew what he was doing symphonically). Mendelssohn would have given you the theme, then left it. There is a great deal to be said for state it and leave it- when you are a composer. Poor Schumann seems not to know this. He takes this charming little fragment and bangs its head against the wall until there is no music left in it. A tutorial with Mendelssohn would not have come amiss.

The Scherzo (second movement) works rather well. Some jumped-up rhythms contrast rather neatly with ironed-out calmer phrases. The instrumentation is as dreary as ever. But Sir Antonio wisely took it at a brisk pace and even conveyed a sense of fun.

The third movement –adagio espressivo- is all doom and gloom. And mostly the latter.

The orchestra’s strings were very impressive in the finale –Allegro molto vivace. A bit of Italian sunshine can sometimes do wonders for routine German music.

The same programme is repeated on Monday 19 November at 21.00 and Tuesday 20 November at 19.30. both at the Santa Cecilia Hall in Rome.

The Orchestra then go on tour with Antonio Pappano and with Martha Argerich* alternating with Jan Lisiecki** in the Schumann concerto and Verdi’s Luisa Miller overture being played in place of Nachtlied as follows. The Schumann second symphony is played at all venues.

21 November Stuttgart Liederhalle**

23 November Luxemburg Philharmonie*

24 November Brussels Palais des Beaux-Arts**

25 November Munich Philharmonie*

26 November Berlin Philharmonie*

Jack Buckley