Given the devastating loss of his wife in June 2010 and subsequent heart problems (as revealed in a recent interview in the New York Times, October 14), it was hardly a surprise to see the 84-year-old Sir Colin Davis walk out slowly, to a warm ovation, and proceed to take his place on a chair on the podium. In contrast, Nikolaj Znaider appeared with all the vigor of youth, swaying to and fro constantly, and seemingly bent on forcing Sibelius’s Violin Concerto into submission.
It had started out promisingly enough, an ethereal whisper from the orchestra (unfortunately punctuated by a cell phone and coughs in the audience), the violin line floating above it. However, by the first short cadenza, the problems that were to plague the rest of the performance had become obvious – intonation issues and a forced, bright sound. Znaider plays the ‘Kreisler’ Guarnerius ‘del Gesu’, an instrument one expects to sing with great tonal beauty; however, when it is muscled like this, with extra-musical noise from the bow, one was almost afraid for the safety of the instrument and acutely aware of the steel strings. Taking a passage in the recapitulation in the highest positions possible sounded merely bizarre rather than producing the warm and intimate sound Henryk Szeryng could achieve with this technique. Rather than adding excitement to the performance, Znaider’s over-energetic treatment took away from it, rendering the first movement as a disconnected series of events and ultimately meaningless.
Sir Colin took the Adagio di molto marking of the second movement to extremes, establishing a glacial pace which would challenge any soloist to sustain the long lines. Znaider again forced rather than drew sound out of the violin; and the occasional Luftpausen
and slight ensemble problems further destroyed any sense of flow. Except for the last three bars, where Znaider suddenly switched into high gear, the finale plodded along, with emphasis on the ma non tanto
part of the marking. It could have been saved from pedantry by crisp articulation, but Znaider’s dotted rhythms were more than approximate. This movement should dance and rollick, but it unfolded like an exercise. As an encore Znaider dedicated the Sarabande from J. S. Bach’s D minor Partita (BWV1004) to Sir Colin, playing it with impeccable intonation but still with very direct and airless tone.
The symphony fared much better, Sir Colin noticeably perking up. Even the LSO sounded different, a more rounded string sound, better blend, and more commitment. The first movement was of one piece structurally, while the second was a tale spun forth with suspense and great drama. The light and lithe scherzo highlighted the virtuosity of the strings, while in the finale the orchestra reveled in lush sound. There were minor issues – slight ensemble problems, internal build-ups, and the transition to the last movement was not completely convincing, the timpanist slightly overbalancing at times – but these barely mattered in the overall scope, Sir Colin’s distillation of a lifetime spent absorbing Sibelius.