All images by Chris Christodoulou/BBC

Written by Sebastian Petit

Making only it’s sixth appearance at the Proms, the Santa Cecilia Orchestra, under the conductor largely responsible for its current, much-garlanded reputation, presented a cannily linked repertoire of programmatic works. As part of the Bernstein Centenary celebrations the works were fascinating as much for their history of critical appreciation as the contrasts and connections. Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1 ‘Jeremiah’ was critically hailed at the 1942 premiere in Pittsburgh and reached the dizzy heights of New York only two months later. Contrast that with the near disastrous premiere of Mahler’s first Symphony when the audience reacted with mystification and downright hostility. Yet spool forward nearly eighty years and the position is completely reversed – Mahler’s symphony is staple repertoire while ‘Jeremiah’ is barely performed, at least in the UK. This was only the second Proms performance while Mahler’s has clocked up over 30 showings without even taking into consideration the performances with the ‘Blumine’ movement!

Under Antonio Pappano the Santa Cecilia Orchestra’s international reputation has burgeoned as has their repertoire. But fortunately they have kept their sense of Italian fun and passion – this is an immensely watchable band. The theme of the programme ran from the Chaos of the opening of Haydn’s Creation through Bernstein’s portrayal of the Biblical catastrophe of the Fall of Jerusalem to the rebirth and cyclical redemption of Mahler.

The six minutes of Haydn segued almost directly into the Prophesy opening of the Bernstein. Though clearly calculated, the crunching clash was still shocking – the echoes of Stravinsky and pre-echoes of West Side Story and, more surprisingly, Britten are immediately obvious and brought into relief by Pappano. Also immediately apparent was the quality of the woodwind and brass playing throughout the orchestra : exchanges within and between departments was one of the great joys of this concert.

All images by Chris Christodoulou/BBC

All images by Chris Christodoulou/BBC

The second movement portrays the fall and profanation of the Great Temple in Jerusalem. While in no way wishing to trivialise this cataclysm, one found it hard not to remark on the very jaunty, almost jazzy arrival of the Babylonian hordes.

The third Lamentation movement is on an entirely different emotional plane. Sumptuously performed by the wonderful Elizabeth DeShong, the vocal line ranges from breathtaking pianissimi to full out rage on the climactic ‘They cried unto them, Depart ye; it is unclean; depart, depart, touch not!’ DeShong is fully equal to all the demands though the aforementioned section pushes her to the limit.

It occurred to me how good DeShong would be as the soloist in Mahler’s 2nd Symphony but that would have made for a very long evening! So that massive work’s predecessor was a more than welcome alternative. Mahler changed his mind more than once regarding the programmatic nature of his first symphony as well as inserting and then removing the Blumine movement. Pappano, rightly in my view, stuck to the final edition.

The daringly hushed opening was breathtaking (despite the best efforts of certain audience members. The evening was plagued by bronchial outbursts, loud noises off and a sustained phone interruption) almost requiring one to strain to catch the sustained A as it spread through the strings. The punchy outer section of the second movement contrast with the dappled sunlight of the central Trio though there is more irony to be found there than Pappano allowed.

The Huntsman’s Funeral is famously based on Moritz von Schwind’s bizarre woodcut portraying woodland animals hypocritically shedding a tear at the passing of their nemesis. The repeated echoes of lines from the song Bruder Martin (the Germanic version of Frère Jaques) traversed from initial innocence to downright sinister and Pappano also brought out in full the klezmer influences inherent in this movement.

The final movement of storm, love and, at last, a renewed hope brought out the best in conductor and orchestra with superbly competitive brass exchanges and luxuriant strings bringing the evening to a spine tingling close and a predictable ovation.

Two encores followed, including a hair raisingly fast galop section from the Guillaume Tell overture, bringing a rewarding evening to a blistering close.

Orchestra of the Academy of Santa Cecilia & Sir Antonio Pappano was shown at the BBC Proms on Friday 10 August. If you want to listen to a recording of the performance broadcasted live at BBC Radio 3, please click here. For more information on the BBC Proms 2018 season, go here

Photo credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou.

Sebastian Petit works full time in technical theatre but his lifelong obsession is classical music especially grand opera. Follow him on now Twitter: