Salvatore Barbatano: Piano
Marco Sollini: Piano
Coro orazio vecchi di Roma
When in Rome, do as the Romans do, they say, but the problem is, I am not quite sure what the Romans do when they want to hear classical music performed live as there does not seem to be a central directory of the all the various concerts happening around town, except for the major venues that need no introduction.
But I am not giving up, and after roaming many streets for the past three weeks, I am happy to report that some progress has been made as I came across a couple of churches announcing upcoming programs that included for the most part the greatest Italian opera hits and sacred music. The range is clearly not wide, or remotely adventurous for that matter, but hey, beggars cannot be choosers.
And then, last Saturday night I found myself in the Chiesa di Sant’Ignazio di Loyola in Campo Marzio, a stunning Jesuit church that is as famous for its eye-popping trompe l’œil dome and ceiling fresco as for the attractive Rococo Piazza di Sant’Ignazio it stands in. Even better, I got to enjoy the Eternal City by night during the lovely walk from my temporary Vatican home to the historic center; and the performance was free.
As for the occasion, it was no less than the 700th anniversary of the death of Italy’s sommo poeta, its Supreme Poet Dante Alighieri. It would be celebrated by the eminent Sollini-Barbattono Duo and the local Coro orazio vecchi di Roma, who would be joining forces for a two-piano-plus-female-chorus version of Listz’s Dante Symphony, which is actually more like two symphonic poems inspired by—What else?—La Divina Commedia.
And so what, if my first concert in Rome revolved around the legacy of a Florentine by way of a Hungarian? At least the organizers and artists were Italian, which was more than could be said of the audience in my immediate surroundings, which included two enthralled elderly French couples and a bunch of bored American teenagers.
The latter’s lack of interest was all the more difficult to explain as the 50-minute performance proved to be effortlessly engaging, even if, alas, the acoustics of the vast space were not always kind to the music, occasionally dulling its colors and blurring its subtleties. And granted, the two-piano version was by default more subdued that the original orchestral version would have been, but there was still plenty of highly Romantic drama to be had, previous knowledge of La Divina Commedia not being required.
It of course all started at the Gates of Hell, that notorious place where we were all supposed to “abandon all hope” to the sound of the starkly ominous opening chords. Terror and despair only increased as flamboyant fire, turbulent winds, unforgiving ice and other similarly unsavory challenges were mercilessly thrown upon us during our descent through the nine circles of the Inferno. Even the love theme of Francesca de Rimini and Paolo did not provide much respite. On the other hand, hell had rarely been that exhilarating.
And then, everything calmed down with the Purgatorio, which started almost too suspiciously tranquil to even prompt a bit of soul-searching, until some restlessness brought more pain and suffering, before reaching the liberating grand finale. For all its imagination and craftiness, not to mention the undeniable commitment of the two pianists, the Purgatorio was not as exciting as the Inferno, but then again, very few things are.
As for the Paradiso, on Wagner’s advice, Liszt decided to represent it by a Magnificat for female chorus instead of a more logical third instrumental movement. Although it is a defensible choice, it cannot help but throw off the overall balance of the composition. That said, the chorus that we had on Saturday night did a reliable job concluding the eventful journey with beauty and joy.
After a few words on the theme “Dante inspirator of the arts” by Andrea Lonardo, Director of the Cultural Office on the Università della Diocesi di Roma, the two pianists came back for an ethereally beautiful encore by Bach (Surprise!), which wrapped up my first musical evening in Rome on a most satisfying and hopeful note.