Colin Davis’s Nielsen cycle continued here (if not in reverse order, then something approaching the wrong way round!) with the First Symphony (1892), acknowledged among the best ‘firsts’ (not least by Brahms) but which enjoys far fewer hearings than such an auspicious debut warrants. Yet the London Symphony Orchestra has an association with the piece going beyond the cycle made with Ole Schmidt in the early 1970s to one of its earliest recordings with André Previn forty-five years ago. There can be few who took part in those sessions still in the ranks, yet the sense of a work re-encountered was often palpable.
The opening movement was powerfully dispatched, Davis heightening tension in the repeated exposition such that it became a springboard into a development of kinetic energy – after which, the transformed reprise and defiant coda seemed the more inevitable. More controversial was a relatively rapid tempo for the Andante, its searching second theme made a questing upsurge between the statements of its ruminative predecessor prior to the limpid coda. Following an intermezzo-like slow movement with a sonata-form scherzo is not the work’s only formal conceit, moreover, and Davis responded with what proved to be this performance’s highlight, finding the rhapsodic pastorale
, driving interludes and portentous ‘trio sections’ with absolute assurance. Nor was the finale the slight anti-climax that it can sometimes seem – Davis reining-in the vigour of the exposition (again repeated with an incremental increase in momentum) before giving the hectic development its head. If there was any falling-off of tension after this point, it failed to detract from a sense of expectancy fulfilled as the coda breached a likely impasse
between G minor and C with heady abandon. The outcome was a (necessarily) decisive squaring of the tonal circle with which Davis looked (justifiably) content.
Placing the symphony in the first half with the concerto after the interval is not always good practice, but the interplay between C minor and major in Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto followed on almost inevitably in context. This is a piece that, along with its successor, tends to come off most successfully in Beethoven cycles these days, and Mitsuko Uchida sounded more involved (as opposed to merely engaged) than she had in the first two concertos. True, there was a disparity between the starkness of the opening tutti
as Davis conceived it and the soloist’s capricious response, but this worked to the benefit of the first movement as a whole – culminating in a cadenza in which Uchida initially overdid the rhetoric before securing a spellbinding transition into the fateful coda. The Largo was the undoubted highlight – the pathos of its outer sections ideally complementing a dialogue between soloist and woodwinds of affecting poise, and a coda whose prolonged leave-taking was all of a piece with what went before – and if the finale was a little lacking impetuosity, it yet enabled soloist and conductor to savour the tonal punning of its central episode; the coda then avoiding any hint of brittleness in its unforced humour. Aspects such as even an adept ‘director’ as Uchida could not have brought off unaided.
As to the voyage around G major of the opening work, Davis’s approach to Haydn might not nowadays meet with unstinting approval but, if the Minuet was too studied, everything else here was pleasurable and life-affirming. Aspects as the subtle intrusion of the slow introduction prior to the first movement’s coda and the sudden eruption in the Adagio’s repose were effortlessly brought off, and the finale wore its contrapuntal dexterity with the deftest of touches. Few conductors programme Haydn symphonies in mainstream concerts these days: that Davis does so and with such conviction can only place us in his debt.
- Concert also played on Tuesday 4 October at 7.30