Review: BBC NOW – Respighi’s Pines of Rome @ St David’s Hall

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Review: BBC National Orchestra & Chorus of Wales –Respighi’s Pines of Rome
St David’s Hall
Friday 10th November 2017

Any opportunity to see Xian Zhang conducting BBC NOW should never be missed. After the roof blowing performance of Berlioz last season, your eyes are stuck on Zhang in her precision and flair. She is simply dynamite. In an all Italian programme, we were treated to the operatic and choral works of Verdi and an orchestral showpiece by Ottorino Respighi. It was a mouth-watering selection of delights which didn’t fail to entrance.

Starting with the overture from La Forza del Destino, Verdi forms dread and heartache in one of his best operatic openers. The first three pangs in the brass and woodwind represent fate and haunt the entire opera. The famous woodwind solos in this are exemplary, in the composers truest sense of melody.  It’s a gripping few minutes and a great highlight prior to WNOs brand new production next year.

Through Verdi is most known for his operas, his religious music is also noteworthy, even if he regarded himself as agnostic. Whilst his Requiem is a concert seller and leaves a mighty impact on its audience, his Four Sacred Pieces is the last composition he created in his long lifetime. For me, it’s watered down Verdi and lacks any real feeling for the chorus, who sing throughout the entire four pieces. The orchestra remains silent for the first part, allowing the chorus to blossom in its curious harmonic splendour. Delivered with a punch, it unmoves me, even knowing it was his last undertaking.

Following on from this, soprano Chiara Taigi sang arias from some of Verdi’s best-known operas. The Ave Maria from Otello is a serene moment for singer and orchestra, it remains one of my favourite arias from the composer. It never fails to move, especially when you know Desdemona is about to be killed by her husband in the next scene. An aria from La Forza del Destino had the presence of a small chorus as Taigi sung some more about the Virgin Mary. She copies the chorus in the prayer and this is a lesser known piece from Verdi.  It maintains the man’s love of sweeping solo vocals over intense choral declarations.

From Il Trovatore, Tacea la Notte Placide, has a Spanish gypsy feel as Taigi changed costumes in between these arias to add to the heat and passion this opera features. Taigi is a wonderful singer, very much a diva in all manner of things and seems to love us as a Cardiff audience. Her take on the famous Sempre Libera from La Traviata was a crowd pleaser since it’s never easy to pull off as a whole. She does it justice, as the lead cello sings what imagined Alfredo declares off stage, in its delight of the idea of love but not actually being in love. This selection of songs was a great success and we want Taigi doing more operas and concerts in Cardiff soon.

Leaving Verdi behind, it leads to a not so faraway musical vision of Rome. In his remarkable tone poem Pines of Rome, Respighi conjures up a sublime musical creation. The pines in questions see all that has gone on in the great city through time. This is an awesome composition, highly regarded as his most popular work, though his other music should also be highly praised. It is bold stuff, with Respighi looking to the future with the addition of a recording of a nightingale infused into the orchestra, a novel idea at the time.

Its extravagant and opulent opening owes a fair amount to Stravinsky and that of his ballet Petrushka. The Russian master wafts in an out of the rest of the score, but always has loving tributes made to him. A truly exquisite moment in the catacomb-inspired second movement is the offstage trumpet and saccharine strings, a teary moment indeed. It’s a joyous work that swirls with a vibrant orchestration, has melodies you may never forget and is overall, still impressive nearly 100 years after its premiere.

Viva Respighi!

Rating: ****

BBC NOW season continues with a concert of Takemitsu, Elgar and Rachmaninov at St David’s Hall on 7th December 2017.

Welsh National Opera new production of La Forza del Destino opens at the Wales Millenium Centre on 2nd February 2017.

Photo credit: BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales website

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