Mazzola Offers Edinburgh Audience a Night in Italy

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Respighi, Rossini, Menotti: Renata Pokupić (mezzo), Scottish Chamber Orchestra / Enrique Mazzola (conductor), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 18.01.2013 (SRT)

Respighi:    Tritticobotticelliano
Il Tramonto
Rossini:      Overture & Di tantipalpiti (Tancredi)
Menotti:     Suite from Sebastian


The SCO aren’t particularly well known for playing Mediterranean music, but Italian music played by an Italian conductor is all but guaranteed to bring a welcome splash of sunlight to a dreich Edinburgh evening.  I especially warmed to the two outermost items, extensive works that brought interesting discoveries.

Respighi based his Tritticobotticelliano on three of the Florentine master’s most famous paintings and came up with some really appealing ways of presenting them.  The shimmering, trilling opening makes you think immediately of the effects of the large scale Roman Trilogy and the lush, extravagant sound for Spring was almost cinematic in the way it jumped from melody to attractive melody.  The modal atmosphere of The Adoration of the Magi was suggestive of Renaissance church music, not least in its quotation from the hymn Veni, veni Emmanuel, and the oriental sparkle of the percussion was very appealing.  Respighi gives us an atmospheric seascape for The Birth of Venus, beginning gently but becoming steadily more majestic as the goddess approaches, and the string rhythm that dominates it isn’t a million miles away from Così’s Soave siailvento.

The suite from Menotti’s ballet Sebastian is every bit as cinematic in the way it uses melody to create a mood and is very impressive in the way the composer uses unusual flashes of instrumental colour.  The use of rhythm is often fairly angular (you’re in no doubt that you’re listening to ballet music) but it contains some lovely melodies, especially the closing Pavane for the hero’s death.

Both these works rely on fairly large-scale sonic effects that you don’t necessarily associate with a band the size of a chamber orchestra, and it is to the SCO’s credit that they managed to pull them off so successfully, with an impressively “big” sound and an augmented percussion section.  Enrique Mazzola conducted them as to the manner born with plenty of Italianate expressivity and, importantly, pride in the music itself.

I’ve never warmed to Respighi’s free arioso setting of Il Tramonto, however.  It strikes me as meandering and unnecessarily convoluted (as well as a downright odd choice of text for a scena).  Nevertheless, it was played with beautifully sensuous strings and it suits Renata Pokupić’s dark, chocolaty mezzo very well.  She was convincingly masculine in Tancredi’s aria, too, with a very impressive lower register, though her flighty ornamentation above the stage was a little misguided.  The overture, on the other hand, bobbed along with plenty of brightness and sparkle but not much variety in the way of dynamics, which somewhat undermined the purpose of the trademark Rossini crescendo.

Simon Thompson