Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia

featuring Daniil Trifonov, under Sir Antonio Pappano

November has been a big month for concerts already, even after I declined to go to a few. There were some personnel shuffles with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, so I refunded that ticket, and I decided not to go see the Berlin Philharmonic this month for a number of reasons.

One of the ensembles in this lineup of world-class orchestras, on the tail end of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, a sleeper in the sense that people may not recognize the name as quickly is the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. I’m so tired of writing/typing that name, but I have a fantastic impression of Maestro Pappano, Trifonov, and the orchestra, even with as little as I’ve heard of them, so even though the program itself certainly wasn’t breaking any new ground (Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto and Tchaikovsky 4), I was interested enough in the names on the bill to go give them a listen.

And am I ever glad I did.

(Interesting fact about the orchestra: Wiki tells us that “The orchestra was founded in 1908, as the first Italian orchestra to devote itself exclusively to symphonic repertoire.”)

The program actually began with Glinka’s overture to Ruslan and Ludmila, and what a way to begin a concert! The level of energy of this piece, from the get-go, set a tone of excitement and intensity that may have literally gotten people’s hearts racing. I’ve heard a few of Santa Cecilia’s recordings of various things, but never seen Pappano conduct, and is he ever intense. You get the feeling that, having been with the orchestra for more than a decade, he knows how far/hard he can push them, and they seem to be able to keep up no matter what. Remarkable amuse bouche.

You know… if you’re at all into classical music, you know Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto (henceforth known as Rach 3), and likely Trifonov as well. I’ll refrain from making any jokes related to his magical playing and his resemblance to one famous wizard character in a series of very popular books/films, but honestly, I can’t remember the last time I heard Rach 3, live or otherwise.

So when Trifonov came out, dressed in a very stylish, modern suit and tie (no coat tails here) and sat down at the keyboard, looking now more like a mad scientist peering over his experiments and less like a stylish CEO of a startup, and played those opening bars, I was almost taken aback at the nostalgia I felt at the piece.

This is one of those works that, if you’ve gotten to know it from recordings of Argerich or Earl Wild, can be impossible for a live performance to stand up to, but the 27-year-old Trifonov and Santa Cecilia came gosh darn close to that reference-recording standard, at the very least in the overwhelming drama of the work. One is reminded in physically being in the presence of a performance like this that the act of performing a concerto of this magnitude is a Herculean feat, not just musical, or artistic, cerebral, poetic, but also very physical, as evidenced by the mop of hair that was increasingly drippy on Trifonov’s brow.

He’s not a big dude, but you realize the amount of physical force and effort, in equal proportion to finesse, that go into performing a piece like this, as well as the fact that once the piano begins the piece, it hardly has a moment’s pause for the entire 40-ish minute duration of the work.

You know frisson? That goosebumpy chill of excitement or emotion that washes over you every now and then? Ever had that on your face? If there was anything about the performance that wasn’t pristine, it was a sort of freedom and extemporaneousness that now and then bordered on daring impulsiveness. Obviously phrasing will never exactly match that beloved recording of yours, and shouldn’t, but besides the fact that I hadn’t listened to this piece in a very, very long time, it really was like hearing it again for the first time. The orchestra played wonderfully, but for as rich and Russian as they sounded, the spotlight is obviously on the pianist, and Trifonov’s solo passages especially were arresting if not entirely paralyzing. Just stunning all around.

In keeping with the Russian theme of the evening, Trifonov gave his as an encore his own transcription of the first movement of Rachmaninoff’s The Bells. I do not care at all for the strong affinity here in Asia for encores, the ‘tradition’ of essentially demanding more from a performer who’s already sacrificed themselves on the Steinway for Rachmaninoff, but he obliged, thankfully only once, and it was obviously beautiful.

After the interval, we came back for Tchaikovsky 4, one of his best symphonies, in my opinion, not as maudlin as 5 or 6, even though that may be sacrilege to some. It puts beautiful demands on the brass section, obviously the strings, and is, as we would expect, a dramatic, emotional work.

The lazy approach to a work like this is to over-gild it, fill it with pomp and bombast and glitz, but as emotional and even wild as Pappano is, there was a remarkable sense of intentionality and care in really everything about the piece. Again, face chills. The first movement is, even if I’m not nuts about Tchaikovsky, pretty wonderful, and I just… it was spectacular.

I heard the Chicago Symphony play this piece a few years ago under Muti, whose Tchaikovsky cycle I have (that he did with the Philharmonia, I think), and their roar, with that brass, was expectedly unbelievable, but I dare say that in matters of finesse, like the light, even humorous, playful third movement, Santa Cecilia had the upper hand, but then again it’s also fresher in my memory. I do just wish they’d jumped into the finale without any pause whatsoever, but we got the briefest of breathers as pages were flipped.

We got two encores, shockingly, and I was ultimately glad I didn’t slip out to beat the crowds. First was Nimrod, from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, and then the overture to Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, which got some laughs, but is really an exhilarating piece of music, something really fun, that the orchestra also clearly enjoyed playing as a more celebratory for-fun close to a very festive evening.

Pappano isn’t new to Santa Cecilia, but it’s only recently that I’ve become aware of some of the wonderful things they’re doing, and so after being really blown away by them yesterday evening, I am very excited to see/hear what they’ll continue to accomplish. I would be very excited to welcome them back and see them in back-to-back concerts, if given the opportunity. Spectacular.

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