BBCSO/Andrew Davis

Bach orch. Andrew Davis
Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor [UK premiere]
Brahms
Violin Concerto in D, Op.77
Elgar
Symphony No.1 in A flat, Op.55

Leonidas Kavakos (violin)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sir Andrew Davis


Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 19 May, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Given that he had to drop out of his advertised Prom last year, this was Sir Andrew Davis’s first London concert with his old orchestra for over a year (by five days – his last was Tippett’s opera “The Knot Garden” in May 2005). There was certainly an eager crowd – filling the stalls and first tier of the Barbican Hall – especially as the concert ended in perfect Davis repertoire, Elgar’s First Symphony.

However, it was another side to Andrew Davis that opened the concert – that of orchestral arranger. Given no explicit première date (it was described in the programme only as “recent”), Davis’s orchestration of Bach’s C minor Passacaglia and Fugue easily betrayed his experience as an organist. This was a beautifully realised fleshing out of Bach’s original lines, never bombastic, but gently contrasted with the returning passacaglia theme subtly coloured to make it sound how extraordinary organ-stops can emulate an orchestra if the transformation had been the other way round. It fitted the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s musicians like a glove, although it was composed for Davis’s new charges, the Pittsburgh Symphony. The Bach arrangement makes it to the Proms this year, so too the Pittsburgh Symphony.

Leonidas Kavakos is a regular partner of Davis and the BBCSO – indeed they toured Berg’s Violin Concerto a couple of summers ago and, after this concert, were due to take both the Brahms and Szymanowski Second concertos to Spain on a six-concert, eight-day tour. Kavakos is a remarkable player, a virtuoso with no extraneous mannerisms and a warm-hearted tone: a perfect match for Brahms’s glowing concerto. And if anyone might have been in doubt as to the way he played the Brahms, after extended applause he gave an encore: the Andante from Bach’s unaccompanied sonata in A minor (BWV1003) that was just exquisite, and fabulously well controlled. Andrew Davis sat in the audience to catch this gem.

And so to the Elgar: that wonderful orchestral arch, its memorable ‘nobilmente’ theme introduced slowly before rushing away, helter-skelter and ruminatively, for the first movement proper; then an effervescent scherzo that segues meltingly into the achingly-beautiful Adagio, the ‘motto’ theme eventually returning in glory to crown the finale.

Davis knows not only how the architecture works but also how to bring out incidental detail: a secure hand which can nudge your gaze to see new things you hadn’t noticed on what you thought was a regular journey. There were many tingle-factors on the way, which the players seemed to share in, including nicely judged solos from guest leader Janice Graham. All in all, emotional effulgence was engendered with which to head out into the rather blustery and unseasonably cool May night.

Given the encore and the BBC’s (usual) rather unrealistic timing for the event, the “Meet the Performers” event post-concert couldn’t take place (at 9.45) as we were in the middle of Elgar at that point – but I daresay no one was complaining. And all credit to the orchestra’s new ‘family ticket’ policy, courtesy of Lloyds TSB, that saw a number of parents with children attend the concert, and with a remarkable sense of concentration.

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