Beethoven Contemporaneous wth Francesconi’s Admirable Sense of Theatre

ItalyItaly Luca Francesconi, Beethoven:  Orchestra and Chorus of Santa Cecilia.  Conductor, Sir Antonio Pappano, Chorus Master, Ciro Visco.  Pumeza Matshikiza (soprano) Rachel Willis-Sorensen (soprano)  Adriana Di Paola (contralto) Stuart Skelton (tenor)  Michael Volle (bass).  Sala Santa Cecilia, Parco della Musica, Rome.  03.10.2015 (JB) 

As you walk through the open, arch-roofed, approach-path to Renzo Piano’s handsome Parco della Musica, the breeze catches overhead, gently swaying placards with Nelson Mandela’s words like:

Apartheid is the rule of the gun and the hangman 

The chains of the body are wings to the spirit 

Bread, water and salt for all 

The only way is by making your enemy your friend 

Think through brain, not blood 

No easy walk to freedom 

Luca Francesconi (b Milan 1956) has gathered together these and many other words of Mandela, and last night was the world premiere of his Bread, Water and Salt for chorus and orchestra with solo soprano. Some words are also in Afrikaans, and there are moments when Francesconi makes use of South African folk music, vocally and instrumentally.  The main contribution here comes from the South African soprano soloist, Pumeza Matshikiza, who brought glamour, pathos and seduction to her impressive performance.

Maestro Francesconi has an admirable sense of theatre – so much so, that this sometimes outstrips musical considerations. But that particular charge might also be made of Monteverdi or even Verdi. The late Anthony Burgess (himself a composer) used to say that Luciano Berio was not a composer at all, but he was an immensely gifted man of theatre. I wouldn’t make this extreme charge of Luca Francesconi.  Still, it was no surprise to read that he had studied with Berio as well as Azio Corghi and Stockhausen.

For all the drama in Mandela’s words, the Leader also had a richly meditative quality, more especially in his spoken delivery. Francesconi rather short-changes us on this. It seems to me that it was the surprising tranquility, which Mandela found in his imprisonment that gave his words such power. There is no discovery like self-discovery. And it was just here in this amazing man’s development that his rich humanity reached out to all mankind. Some of these words would sound trite if they were not coming from this man in these circumstances.

It was soprano, Pumeza Matshikiza that brought the finest human warmth to the evening; every nuance was delivered with great conviction and never a feeling of exaggeration. The chorus was as meticulously prepared as ever by Ciro Visco.  But much of the time their performance was drowned out by the turmoil of the orchestra. This has never been a charge one can lay against Antonio Pappano, which leads me towards questioning the possibly heavy-handed orchestration of the composer. And this, once again, is the drama sinking the tranquility of the story.

Drama was to the fore again in the Beethoven Ninth Symphony. Sir Antonio has programmed all the Beethoven symphonies over the opening weeks of the new season, of which this was the inaugural concert. Together with the Beethoven symphonies, each concert will also have a contemporary work, either of our own times or of Beethoven’s. Such non-entities as Spontini and Cherubini get a look in here.

Pappano is all for the rumbustiousness of the Ninth. That rather leads to William Walton’s objection to Beethoven symphonies: I really don’t care for being beaten over the head by a deaf German when I’m listening to a symphony. Britten was equally dismissive of Beethoven’s symphonic output. And the charge is not without some merit. Beethoven can easily sound like a composer laboring the musically obvious.  If this is then performed with some emphasis on the music’s supposed drama, the result is inescapably close to Sir William’s damnation.

Moreover, Schiller’s Ode to Joy comes across as somewhat leaden when it follows the simplicity and directness of the Mandela words. In fairness, Schiller’s poem does also score rather well on the simplicity and directness scoreboard. But there is also the quality which W S Gilbert’s Mikado threatens to mete out to society’s sinners: All prosy dull, society sinners, / Who chatter and bleat and bore, / Are sent to hear sermons/ From mystical Germans/ Who preach from ten till four. 

For my own part, I rather warm to Schiller’s mysticism. So does Maestro Pappano. He puts the bombast on hold here and allows those effective hushed passages of the finale to speak for themselves.

Much of this comes from the four soloists. The men were better than the women, but that is because Beethoven hands them the more interesting parts.  All four had perfect German diction but Michael Volle (bass) was outstanding in his arresting opening recitative and aria. Stuart Skelton (tenor) gave his heart to everything he sang.

The chorus was as wonderfully prepared as ever: the mystical Germans of their delivery was one of the evening’s greatest pleasures. And Maestro Pappano was careful enough to make sure we heard it. It’s a pity that we had to be beaten over the head  in the first three movements, but the paradise was the more real when we got there: that’s not unlike the lunatic who said he bashed his head against the wall because it felt so good when he left off.

Jack Buckley

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