Totentango [Part of UBS Soundscapes: Pioneers, commissioned by LSO Discovery] Mendelssohn
Violin Concerto in E minor, Op.64 Berlioz
Symphonie fantastique, Op.14
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis
Pavel Kotla [Totentango]
LSO/Colin Davis Midori
Wednesday, February 24, 2010 Barbican Hall, London
Reviewed by Colin Anderson
Totentango (2008, for which there was no claim that this was its premiere) began agreeably enough, certainly rhythmically, and with a sinister atmosphere akin to a TV thriller of yesteryear (an Edgar Wallace story, something like that). There was then an abrupt gear-change to a brighter-lit outdoors, where we stayed, but the basic dance material – all too familiar in popular terms – simply didn’t sustain even a seven-minute piece; and despite skilful scoring, there was precious little development to speak of. It was almost impossible to discern what Matthew King’s personal style might be. Listener-friendly with a vengeance, there was nothing in Totentango that Malcolm Williamson didn’t achieve, and with greater insouciance, in his 1963 opera “Our Man in Havana” (based on Graham Greene's novel, which also became a film directed by Carol Reed and starring Alec Guinness).
Mendelssohn’s (adorable) E minor Violin Concerto, like Mahler's symphonies, is being played to death. It needs a sabbatical from concert halls, but, as future listings reveal, it won’t be getting this much-needed rest. This performance of it was generally lacklustre. Midori took a while to find her technical feet and seemed unsettled, ensemble between her and the LSO somewhat shaky. Having opened the work at a tempo that seemed to harry the soloist’s notes into their place, her slowing the pace to a standstill for lyrical episodes made them tedious and indulgent, an apt description too for the second movement, which trudged through treacle. The finale at least had some caprice. Midori is a stylish and intimate musician, never forcing her hand, and cultivating an individual tone as well. Here she seemed ill-at-ease, which can have nothing to do with Sir Colin Davis’s conducting – for he went out of his way to accommodate her sluggishness, and at least some wonderful woodwind-playing gave a spark sadly missing for the most part from the soloist.
It was the Berlioz that stole the show. Many decades of conducting it and four recordings later (including one for LSO Live), Colin Davis seems to still be in ‘first love’ with Symphonie fantastique, for here was a lifetime’s experience combined with undimmed devotion put to the service of a truly original work. 'Dreams and passions' were certainly evoked in the first movement, expressive contours and fluctuations of pulse unerringly judged, the closing bars hauntingly peaceful and ideally weighted. The succeeding ‘Waltz’ has rarely sounded so lively (Roderick Franks nimbly negotiating the ad lib cornet part) and the third movement was of pastoral reflection (for all the regrettable coughing pitted against it), the exchanges between cor anglais and off-stage oboe ideally judged and, come the close, darkened by potent distant timpani.
With a fiery and precise ‘March to the Scaffold’ – (Berlioz’s strange requested repeat of the first section convincingly observed), Davis living every rebarbative pizzicato, and with impeccable brass, the movement tightening and tightening to a scorching termination – and a wild, ghoulish ‘Witches’ Sabbath’ (with proper church bells, for once) that concluded with a perfectly-timed ‘kick’ to the finishing post, the secret of this performance was Davis’s well-nigh-perfect balancing of the symphonic and the fantastical as well as his time-honoured empathy with this composer’s music. Sir Colin is now 82; reverse those digits for something closer to the vitality and inspiration he displayed on this occasion, the LSO responding in kind.