For the Accademia di Santa Cecilia’s season opening concert, musical director Antonio Pappano has chosen Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, a work that this orchestra had the honour to premiere in Italy in 1924 (!). It is certainly the right choice to highlight the abilities of chorus and orchestra – and the Santa Cecilia acquited itself quite well in the test. The strings have a clear, bright sound and deal rather commendably with passagework and the brass are generally accurate and noble sounding. The chorus has a full-toned quality almost exclusively found in Italy – the tenors are particularly healthy-sounding. I found their energetic approach proper to Beethoven and maestro Norbert Balatsch has done a very good work to keep discipline within the animation. The sopranos had their edgy moments and some melisme could be clearer, but that are minor blemishes in a commendably large-scale and enthusiastic approach. At this point, my five or six readers may be puzzled by these words in relation to this post’s title – yes, the 1,000,000 dollar-question is: why has this performance ultimately failed to deliver the goods?
I have a friend who uses to say that you should always see the last in a series of concerts in Germany and the first of them in Italy. According to him, the last concert in Germany will have gained in experience from the previous ones and offer an improved experience, whereas in Italy the musicians will simply have lost steam before that. Is that a prejudiced notion? Probably. I haven’t seen the first concert out of these tree performances with Pappano, but the truth is that the last one seemed to have the flesh, but not the spirit. His phrasing was lively, even theatrical at times, but the sound picture lacked weight somehow and instead of momentum, one had the impression of edge, histery rather than vehemence. I do not know how much the acoustics are to blame, but I found many contrapuntal passages blurred also. The solo by the orchestra’s spalla in the heavenly Benedicuts was too sentimentalized in its generous vibrato to produce the right effect and the dona nobis pacem just failed to culminate into a sensation of conclusion.
Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis is also hard work for the soloists, and Pappano’s choice of singers was almost invariably wrong for the approach and for the hall. To start with, larger voices were needed. It is not that these singers were almost always overshadowed by the chorus, they were sometimes difficult to hear when singing with the orchestra alone. The soprano part, for instance, is particularly difficult because of the periculously high tessitura. Emma Bell does master the art of floating high mezza voce, although one can now and then feel how strenuous this must be, but when the dynamic is other than piano, the sound is simply too unfocused to carry in the auditorium. Anna Larsson’s low register, dark as it is, is similarly too soft-edged for this piece. Considering the riches of choice of Italian mezzos and contraltos with a forceful sound down at the bottom of their range, this is particularly frustrating. If Roberto Saccà is technically accomplished, the tone is too metallic and unflowing for this music. Only German bass Georg Zeppenfeld produced the right effect in this music, especially in the second part, when he sang with classical poise, liquid phrasing and chocolate-y tonal quality.