Puccini’s Messa di Gloria: Antonio Pappano and the London Symphony Orchestra

I found Antonio Pappano’s layout of the orchestra quite revealing; even
obsessively gripping to listen to – and it was something he didn’t deviate
from through all three works. Violins were antiphonally divided,
double-basses placed to the extreme left, along with timpani behind them,
and violas and cellos placed evenly across the centre of the orchestra.
This may, in design, have been entirely organised this way for the second
work on the programme – Verdi’s orchestration of his String Quartet in the
version for full strings (in this LSO performance by a version that had
been sanctioned by Verdi in 1877). Somewhat appropriately, this is a work
which AndrÈ Previn, who died last week, and who had a more than forty-year
association with the London Symphony Orchestra, also conducted – and
recorded with the Wiener Philharmoniker – though most often in the
Toscanini arrangement.

The quartet is not really Verdi at his best. At times, you might even
struggle to identify the work as by Verdi at all – something, for example,
that you could never do with the string quartets composed by Beethoven,
BartÛk or Shostakovich – or even the few that Tchaikovsky wrote, all
quartets which sound unmistakably by those composers. At times, this is a
work that doesn’t seem very far away from Mendelssohn – but then it can
also have the loftiness and gravity of German music. Rarely does it touch
on being overly Italian, however – and it doesn’t have the inner-voices in
the instrumentation or scoring that characterise so many of his operas. But
Pappano and the LSO were something of a revelation in a performance that,
if a little heavily phrased at times, brought considerable clarity to their
playing. Those divided strings sometimes felt as if they were in a tennis
match – the playing was just gorgeous, and very articulate. There was
something balletic – recalling this composer’s Macbeth – to the
Prestissimo and the fugue that dominates the final movement was ideal for
the weight that Pappano drew from the LSO strings – a hallmark of their
playing the entire evening. It’s quite uncanny how Germanic this orchestra
is sounding these days.

Ponchielli’s Elegia – an undated work – but published only forty
years ago – doesn’t really challenge the assumption that this is a composer
who is going to suddenly become better known for a piece other than La Gioconda. It is very much what the title suggests it is and
doesn’t delve much deeper. If it explores grief, it doesn’t come close to
doing so in a cathartic way; there are no moments of epiphany, and the
anguish never seems to be of the kind that mirrors loss or devastation. It
wasn’t for a lack of trying from the orchestra – just that the music never
quite allowed them to do much except play through it.

The main work on the programme was Puccini’s Messa di Gloria, a
work begun when the composer was 20 and finished two years later. Granted
this is a graduation piece by the young Puccini, but it remains an oddly
unsatisfying work and I’m not convinced that even Pappano’s advocacy of it
would persuade me otherwise. It’s been argued that’s it not really a messa in the conventional sense at all – more a mass. It remained
largely unperformed in Puccini’s lifetime, indeed he ended up taking pieces
from this early work (such as the Agnes Dei) which was to find a place in
Act II of Manon Lescaut. The solo voices, too – written just for a
tenor and a bass-baritone – also give the work a somewhat darker colour,
especially compared to Rossini’s Messa di Gloria which uses a
wider vocal range. But Puccini is clearly of the view that this should be a
sacred work – in its entirety – and there is no question we are getting
into the territory with a piece like the Verdi Requiem of debating
whether religious works should breach the barriers between the sacred and
the operatic.

It’s the twenty-minute Gloria which forms the backbone of this piece – and
if you can sometimes detect militaristic writing from Verdi in it (such as Aida) that’s because Puccini, like a magpie, seems to consciously
or otherwise, draw on this. The LSO brass, if anything, were a touch
understated – something one couldn’t say of the gloriously full-throated
chorus. The first entry of the tenor at ‘Gratias agimas tibi’ – here sung
by Benjamin Bernheim – sounded a little nervously done but he quickly found
his stride and by the time he sang his second solo, ‘Et incarnatus’, he was
a powerful and resonant presence. His voice can sound extraordinarily
lyrical, even beautiful – in short, it’s an ideal Puccini voice. But the
composer doesn’t make it easy for his two soloists (especially the
bass-baritone) who are sat around for a considerable period of time before
having to sing a note. Bernheim looked the more nervous of the two; Gerald
Finley seemed the more confident, head buried deep in his score – but
appearances proved deceptive. Finley is a singer I have found troubling in
the past – his Scarpia at Covent Garden in January 2018 I had found very
underpowered – and I didn’t find either his ‘Crucifixus’ or his
‘Benedictus’ sung here to be an improvement on that. His ‘Crucifixus’
almost disappeared under the basses of the chorus, though Puccini’s adagio
tempo is hardly helpful. Only in the Agnes Dei do we the get the
bass-baritone and tenor singing in unison – the only real moment in the Messa where Puccini really strives towards the operatic in a work
which is entirely devoid of it. It’s an oddly muted ending, tailing off and
making the Messa almost sound an incomplete work.

The combined forces of the LSO Chorus had been extraordinarily accomplished
throughout this performance – some of the cappella singing had been of a
very high quality, for example. Pappano drew exquisite playing from the
orchestra – they clearly have considerable rapport with each other. An
unusual programme of late Italian Romanticism certainly, and an uneven one
as well from composers better known for their operas, despite the
unquestionably high artistic standards which it often reached. This was
also filmed live by

Medici TV

and can be watched until June 3rd 2019.

Marc Bridle

Benjamin Bernheim (tenor), Gerald Finley (bass-baritone), Sir Antonio
Pappano (conductor), London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.

Barbican Centre; London 3rd March 2019.

product_title=LSO conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano
product_by=A review by Marc Bridle
product_id= Above: Gerald Finley