Sunny Italy comes to gloomy South Kensington ! Italy "is" music, some say. But more fundamentally, Italy represented a dream that inspired northern Europeans and liberated their creative spirits. When Goethe escaped Weimar for Italy, he was transformed. No more the "pale moon" of Charlotte von Stein but a real woman on whose naked back Goethe wrote vivacious poems. Goethe's whole career can be seen as pre and post Italienische Reise.
Before film, photos and travel, northerners just weren't prepared for the shock of being in strong, sharp sunlight, where colours and senses were more intense. And as we know, being a tourist isn't like being a local. These rich, educated northerners were experiencing an idealized Italy that existed in their imaginations, but was all the more wonderful for that.
This is the water colour Mendelssohn painted of Florence. Many early 19th century people painted, so Mendelssohn's accomplishment isn't unusual, though his work is good. His Symphony No 4 The Italian on the other hand is a leap into the transcendental.
Gianandrea Noseda showed his real colours, too, in this performance. His Mahler 6th was disappointing, but here he understood the idiom. The BBC Philharmonic isn't quite as good as the BBC Symphony, but this time they were electrified. Dance forms infuse this music, and like dancers, these musicians executed their moves with muscular energy. Mendelssohn's colours are so dazzingly bright, they're almost blinding. Yet as with most Mendelssohn, the real beauty often lies deeper. On the other hand, the Italian is so invigorating that it's great to just sit back and enjoy the heady images.
Italians weren't immune to exotic fantasy either. Walter Scott's stories of wild, untamed Highlanders appealed to the passionate Romantic imagination all over Europe, even inspiring fake Highlanders like Ossian. Rossini's La Donna del Lago is a caper where merrily inauthentic Scotsmen lark about by a lake. So if Vivica Genaux sings Mura felice...O ! Elena! it's quite in order that a man's part is writeen for female voice. It's part of a grand tradition. Genaux, beautiful of name, physique and voice, specializes in baroque and early 19th century opera. Angelina is one of her keynote roles, so it was good to hear her sing two arias from La Cenerentola. Luscious ornamentation, free flowing coloratura. This Prom was a raster for the full opera next year at Stresa, where she'll be conducted again by Gianandrea Noseda.
Things Romantic appeal to 20th century composers too. Everyone loves Respighi's Pines of Rome, forgetting it was written in the 1920's, contemporary with Wozzeck. The recorded song of the nightingale must have seemed shockingly techno and avant garde in 1924 but even that's no big deal. Why "not" add dub, if it works? Maybe Respighi was channelling Varèse’s Amériques.
Nowadays composers couldn't get away with something so obvious. Messiaen's bird songs aren't novelty, but more sophisticated, dictating the music's form.
Peter Maxwell Davies's Roma Amor (geddit?) is an interesting companion piece to Respighi, for it, too is a series of vivid images, though the sounds are transmuted in a very different style. Listen to the music before reading the composer's detailed descriptions. Listening first lets your imagination work out what those lyrical swirling sounds might mean, or the brutal surging percussion. Or the trumpet, cut short, which rises again more cautiously. There is nothing wrong in principle about music based on images if it still functions as music, and works on your mind. At once, Italy and not-Italy, image and imagination.