Beethoven at St Paul’s

Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125 (Choral)

Krassimira Stoyanova (soprano)
Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano)
Robert Gambill (tenor)
Alastair Miles (bass)

London Symphony Chorus

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 23 September, 2004
Venue: St Paul’s Cathedral, London

The London Symphony Orchestra temporarily vacated the Barbican to open its new season in the awe-inspiring surroundings of St Paul’s Cathedral. One monumental masterpiece was offered, the concert being in support of The Lord Mayor’s Appeal, and tagged Listen Up!. Several thousand people fill St Paul’s when full. It was full.

Sir Colin Davis is, of course, a seasoned Beethoven conductor, one unfazed by ‘historically informed’ issues, one who gives those questionably fast metronome markings a wide berth. The generous acoustic of St Paul’s seemed to play little part in determining Davis’s tempos. This was a typically heroic and humane account, the breadth a familiar part of Davis’s Beethoven conducting. He perceives the first movement as monumental, sees it whole, the apocalyptic climax being an integral part of the design.

The acoustic, with its 5-second reverberation period, both muddied the textures and imparted a glow. The middle movements fared, respectively, worst and best. The scherzo was unhurried yet sounded messy (it wasn’t); fortunately such aural confusion didn’t stop Davis observing the long second repeat and giving the scherzo its full dimension. Davis’s transition to the trio was an example of spot-on tempo-relationship; the lower strings sounded gorgeous in the radiance, woodwinds and horns were suggested as playing from the Elysian Fields. That glow aided the slow movement, here consolatory, gentle, even snoozing, the Andante contrasts another model of timing; and, as Davis relaxed the pace even more, one became strangely aware of Berlioz’s ‘Scène aux champs’.

No prisoner to the reverberation, the slow movement still a dying ember, Davis swung into the finale. The ‘ode to joy’ theme itself could not have been more beatific, and how well lower strings and bassoon counterpointed. Alastair Miles was magnificent as he urged “not these tones”, and rarely has a tenor had this amount of time to enunciate his verse over the ‘Turkish March’. The piccolo player went slightly wayward at this point; Sir Colin looked at the score and smiled. The LSO Chorus was in typically enthusiastic, lusty and unanimous form, and Krassimira Stoyanova managed her top, awkward note with admirable ease. Karen Cargill completed an excellent quartet.

Just to prove that the acoustic was irrelevant to Davis’s conception, there were moments when he pushed the exultant moments along – inner parts and clarity of detail weren’t really in it – but any loose ends were triumphantly bounded by the tremendous majesty Davis invested into the chorus’s last shout. This was a big noise, a joyful noise, the singers and players responding dedicatedly to Colin Davis’s wholly natural and heartfelt conducting for a compelling and inspiring performance.

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