Respighi, Schumann, Rossini

Italy is not known for its orchestras outside the opera house.  It’s also not known for producing too many composers in the last two centuries who could succeed in writing non-operatic orchestral music, unless they trained north of the Alps.  Why did Italians stop being able to comprehend orchestral music? I have no explanation for these gaps.

The Milan Symphony Orchestra under Oleg Caetani came to Salzburg’s Great Festival House this week to perform all four Schumann symphonies and assorted other works over three nights.  I chose the first night, figuring I would test the water before committing to all three concerts.  Tonight’s performance was proficient, but did nothing to dispel the reputation of Italian orchestras.  The hall was completely full for the first half of the concert, and at least one fifth of the audience departed at intermission and never returned.  I stayed, but heard nothing that made me eager to buy tickets for the next two nights.

The tone was pleasant enough, if a bit thin, particularly noticeable during the tutti sections, and more so during Schumann’s Third Symphony.  The musicians went through all of the motions, but did not manage to sway.  Uninspired?  Lost in translation?  I’m not sure.  Schumann’s symphonies – the First and Third were on the program tonight – should be easily accessible.  The Third – a relatively late work (he died young, so not that late, but his music was becoming more dramatic with age) – certainly should have had a bigger sound, but Caetani took it more quickly than usual, and the orchestra did not always keep up.

The concert opened with the third suite of Ancient Airs and Dances by Respighi. Although Italian, Respighi studied composition with Rimsky-Korsakov and Max Bruch.  Here his music harked back to the time when Italians did write purely orchestral works, updating music from the 16th and 17th century.  It’s wonderful stuff, but probably also outside what can excite this orchestra.

As an encore, the orchestra gave us a much more idiomatic reading of the overture to the Barber of Seville by Rossini.  This playful music they understood, so at least we went home with a twinkle and a smile.

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