Death With Your Eyes Wide Open

ItalyItaly  Peter Maxwell Davies and Ottorino Respighi  Chorus and Orchestra of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia.  Chorus Master, Ciro Visco; Conductor, Sir Antonio Pappano.  Markus Butter (baritone).    Sala Santa Cecilia, Rome.  27.06.2014 (JB)

Davies: Symphony no 10  “In Search of Borromini”
Respighi:  The Fountains of Rome, The Pines of Rome.

I’ve no problem about dying, I just don’t want to be there when it happens,  said that great wit, Woody Allen.  He would have a large number of takers on this proposition.  Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Master of the Queen’s Music, has something like the opposite approach to the Great Unknown: A face-it with all the lights turned up to maximum.  He has just experienced a fierce battle with leukaemia while he was composing his tenth symphony.  The illness and the symphony were in an astonishing dialogue which he says was one of the most surprising experiences of his remarkable creativity.

Max’s tenth symphony was a joint commission by the London Symphony Orchestra and the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, both to be conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano.  I’m grateful to the Rome S Cecilia press conference for the information which follows, where composer and conductor were finishing one another’s sentences!  In the early part of the conference one stretch went like this (I report from memory):

-Do you remember how we first met?

-Wasn’t it at Buckingham Place?

– It was.  It was the birthday of the Prince of Wales and I had written a piece for the occasion based on folk tunes from the Orkney Isles (where PMD lives).   I was told the piece would be performed but I wasn’t expecting instrumentalists from the Royal Opera, Covent Garden with their conductor.  The piece was supposed to be a surprise for the Prince but the performance by such an illustrious group was a surprise for me!

-From that first moment I’ve always related to your music.  And never more so than the times I visited you in London University College Hospital—

-with tubes sticking out all over me

-yes, and a smile on your face as you handed me the manuscript you were working on and asked me

-what I thought of it.

-Do you remember what you said?

-I don’t.

-Well I will never forget it.  After some minutes you said, “I like the harmony”. That remark gave me a new lease of life. 

Cut to the rehearsal.  I’ve  previously recorded something of the profound respect and affection which the S Cecilia players have for Sir Tony.  And vice-versa.  Yet there is an urgency –sometimes even a tension- in Pappano’s rehearsal technique.  In the first movement of the symphony the orchestra alone plays dissonances which could only have been written by Max Davies and are startling as a result.  I learned later they represent the harsh, irrational criticisms Borromini received from his jealous rivals.

But Tony is not getting the sound he wants from the wind.  Without realising it, he drops into his native English Now come on now, he says, with its import of  what the hell do you think you’re up to?   The words may have been unclear to the orchestra.  But their import is not.  They give Sir Tony exactly what he wants!

Sir Max is still in a delicate state of health.  But the respect the players have for their conductor is extended to this composer friend.  Every player wants a photo with Max who is a reluctant subject before a camera.  But like everyone else, Max has entered into the spirit of the occasion and obliges.  It took a long time to get away.

The tenth symphony will surely go down in history as the Davies Borromini Symphony. The composer has already called it In Search of Borromini.  Max’s love affair with the architect began  in 1957, during his postgraduate studies in Rome with Goffredo Petrassi.   Davies’s lifetime fascination with mathematics immediately responded to Borromini’s ingenious formulae on the use and illusions of space and light.  As he began repeated visits to the churches, stirrings of music began in the depths of his mind.  The seventh of his ten quartets which had its premiere in Sant Agnese in Piazza Navona only two years ago, is already dedicated to the architect.

But as befits both architect and composer, the symphony is a bigger, bolder and more adventurous score.  Those mathematical formulae find admirable expression in the aggressions of the first movement’s (Max calls them sections) which have such a unique Davies voice –the same aggressions Pappano was having difficulty in getting out of the Rome wind players, though in fact, he soon got them.

Antonio Pappano gave a brief spoken introduction to the symphony.  He advised the audience to listen to the work more as an opera than a symphony, with the soloist   (the excellent Austrian baritone, Markus Butter ) cast as Borromini.  He indeed, in the final section, sings the words which Borromini dictated to his servant after he had fatally stabbed himself.  That is preceded by the chorus singing a setting of the famous sonnet, A Se Stesso (To himself) of Giacomo Leopardi (another Max favourite author).  Congratulations here to Ciro Visco, the Chorus Master, who produced exquisite, ethereal tones from his team.  Profoundly moving  are the words which Pappano most  uses about this symphony.  The audience applause must have left him in do doubt that he was right.

Against all odds, the unfamiliar music on the programme brought more applause than the familiar music.  Like all concert promoters, the Accademia di Santa Cecilia are nervous in programming unknown works.  They need not have worried.  I very much doubt whether Antonio Pappano did.  The world premiere with the LSO on 2 February 2014, at their home in the Barbican had been a crowning success.  A recording on the LSO’s own label has already had the Master approved by conductor and composer.  Personally, I can’t wait to obtain it.

Ottorino Respighi (1879 – 1936) like me, was a Roman by adoption.  However, unlike me, he immortalised the city in two Suites: The Fountains of Rome and The Pines of Rome.  These Suites remain firm favourites with the Rome public.  The orchestra’s prize-winning recording of them are among  its highest sales.  To an adopted son of the city they sound uncomfortably dated with all the worst qualities of the weakest Elgar, sentimental and in parts, bombastic.  I can concede that there are charming touches of orchestration here and there.  But don’t take any notice of me.  I’m only adopted.  This was a Rome evening for the Romans after all.  And how they lapped it up.  All of it.

Jack Buckley

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