Prom 4: Academy of Santa Cecilia, Rome/Pappano

Berio: Sinfonia; Rossini: Stabat Mater

Royal Albert Hall, 16 July 2007 4 stars

Joyce DiDonato

Antonio Pappano's Prom concert with his Rome orchestra, the Academy of Santa Cecilia, juxtaposed works by two fellow Italians who both took revolutionary attitudes to the musical conventions of their day.

Rossini, the founder of a new style of Italian opera in the nineteenth century, was represented by his Stabat Mater, while Luciano Berio, who was one of the most independent-minded composers of the twentieth century, was represented by his Sinfonia of 1969.

The latter work is not his most ear-grabbing creation, and it is difficult not to question why parts of the five-movement symphony were really necessary. The first two movements are similar in sound and style, blending ethereal high string pedal notes with high-pitched voices reading from a text, and the fifth movement seems to return to the same kind of unstructured, monotonous sound-world. Yet the third movement is remarkably compelling. A postmodern reworking of the third movement of Mahler's Second Symphony, it superimposes snippets of other famous works of the past on top of the basic score (which mostly proceeds as normal) - I noticed Ravel's La valse, Debussy's La mer, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and Beethoven's 'Pastoral' Symphony amongst others - and the effect is to represent a collection of musical memories, the thoughts that swirl around in the composers brain and which he has to address when creating his own works.

I take my hat off to Pappano, the orchestra, and particularly the Swingle Singers, who had to negotiate a difficult range of texts delivered in peculiar styles in every movement (for instance, reading from Beckett's The Unnamable over the huge musical tableaux of the third movement described above). They gave the premiere of the work back in 1969, and although the members of the group have changed since then, the piece seems to be in their blood. Pappano conducted this frankly overambitious and often pretentious work with the utmost conviction, presiding confidently over the large orchestral forces, including an enormous percussion section, harps and piano, and ensuring that the strange vocal parts were integrated fully into the performance. Although it's not an experience I'd care to repeat often, it's a shame that the piece was not attended by a bigger audience.

I felt this even more after the thoroughly riveting performance of Rossini's Stabat Mater. Pappano has not given a better performance of any piece in London: he seemed totally relaxed, absorbed in the music and positive of the abilities of his performers to communicate his vision. This was not merely a technically secure Stabat Mater, but one which explored the text with thought and insight.

Philip Gossett's admirably level-headed programme note avoids linking the inspiration for the composition of the work - which describes the Virgin Mary standing at the foot of Christ as he died on the cross - to the death of Rossini's own mother (an event which happened at least four years before he wrote the piece) and instead describes how it was commissioned by a Spanish banker called Alexander Aguado. Initially written in conjunction with another composer, Giuseppe Tadolini, only half of the first version of the Stabat Mater was by Rossini; later he composed further movements so that the version we know today is all Rossini's work.

Pappano's committed performance showed how deeply inspired the composer was by the text and, rather like the Berio Sinfonia, the piece is both a response to the past in parts and very modern sounding in others. The orchestration is incredibly developed, with the start of the 'Quis est homo' passing the melody from horns to violins (sounding wonderfully lucid under Pappano) in a very subtle change of instrument. But what struck me was the harmonic language, which is as complex as Rossini ever used. Even the tenor aria 'Cujus animam', which can seem jaunty in the wrong hands (but not here), is introduced by a sombre and unusually dark minor key opening and diminished seventh harmonies in between the major key lines. And the final chorus - 'In sempirterna saecula, Amen' - mixes the vigour of a baroque fugue with a moving reminiscence of the opening 'Stabat mater' theme and bold, modern, thicker textures. The opera composer truly turned his hand to a sacred genre and came up with a distinctive masterpiece.

The beauty of Pappano's reading was its clarity of texture, always allowing the voices to be heard while the orchestra remained incisive. I was especially delighted by his tendency to read dotted rhythms as double-dotted in the baroque manner: it is much more dramatic, is evocative of the music that inspired Rossini in several movements, and projects better in the difficult acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall. Yet he also accounted for aspects of the piece that remain very Rossinian - the florid vocal lines of the 'Inflammatus et accensus' are high bel canto - and the warmth of the wind and string sound brought out the Romantic element. The Chorus of the Academy of Santa Cecilia was the orchestra's equal: precise, dramatically vivid and thrillingly vital in attack.

Two of the original four soloists dropped out before the performance, one of them (soprano Emma Bell) very late in the day. Janice Watson did an admirable job of standing in at such short notice (she can only have had a day's rehearsal at the most), and gave a confident performance of this fiendishly difficult music. The other replacement artist, Colin Lee, who was standing in for tenor Lawrence Brownlee (who we interviewed last week before he had to cancel due to illness), is a marvellous bel canto singer and both understood the elegant style of the part and nailed its high notes (going up to a D flat at one point). Bass Ildar Abdrazakov leads two enormous movements in quick succession and sang with authority, even if his voice did not always carry and was not ideally in the centre of the note (crucial in the classical voice-leading of this work).

However, the indisputable star of the evening was mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, who is still in her thirties but is without doubt one of the all-time great Rossinians. The top of her voice has an ideal squillo ('ping'), the bottom has secure tone, and her precision and range of expression is astonishing. She stood out in the duet 'Quis est homo', while 'Fac ut portem', which describes the very darkest emotions of Mary's torture at witnessing the death of her son, was the most meltingly beautiful moment of the evening.

A memorable occasion.

By Dominic McHugh