Brendel, Davis and the LSO – 20 February

Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat (Emperor)
Symphony No.6 in A

Alfred Brendel (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Colin Davis

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 20 February, 2002
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Although he is recognised above all for his interpretations of Berlioz and Mozart, and has latterly consolidated his reputation as a Sibelian of stature, Colin Davis has been conducting Bruckner extensively in recent years. He contributed Symphonies &#146 0 &#146, 5, 6, 7 and 9 to the LSO&#146s centenary cycle in 1996, and its good to find him reviving two of these works during the current LSO season.

Especially No.6, which is the least performed and most misunderstood of the mature symphonies. Relatively compact in dimensions and duration (though at 62 minutes, Davis’s account is among the broadest), its range of emotion and thematic intricacy are in no way limited. And there were aspects ofDavis’s interpretation that misfired.

His portentous way with the scherzo, reined in so that its teasing rhythmic interplay was lost from the outset, served little purpose, while tempo co-ordination in the first movement tended to drag – particularly in the follow-through of second theme (unaffectedly phrased) and codetta. The coda, a passage of inspiration to rival any in the symphonic domain, was fractionally too weighted down for its harmonic rhythm to convey the ecstatic vision this music embodies.

Yet the opening theme, with its indelible rhythmic profile, was trenchantly delivered, the central development conveying majesty but not at the expense of forward momentum. And the scherzo’s trio section was limpidly rendered; its gently quixotic mood and timbres tellingly pointed up. Davis’s control of the ’Adagio’ was exceptionally fine, the elegiac and the radiant unobtrusively integrated into the beatific synthesis of the coda.

So too the finale, perhaps the most difficult of all Bruckner’s symphonic movements to bring off, it emerged here in all its recalcitrant splendour. The thematic connections back to the first two movements, notably the lamenting oboe theme of the ’Adagio’, now irresistibly high-spirited, were audibly laid bare,while the coda was heaven-storming in the curiously matter-of-fact way unique to this symphony. If the forthcoming LSO Live CD can put together a performance as convincing as this, it will be one to reckon with.

Which was not the case, sadly but perhaps inevitably, with Alfred Brendel’s account of Beethoven’s Fifth Concerto. True, apart from some awkward runs in the finale, the technique is still intact, though Brendel’s seeming reluctance to play below mezzo-forte (possible even in the over-projecting Barbican acoustic) became wearing as the first movement continued on its interpretatively all too predictable course.

Apart from a crudely-phrased entry, Brendel at least conveyed a sense of emotional vulnerability in the second movement – a quality evident throughout the work if he cared to seek it out – while the finale managed a semblance of spontaneity and brought out the best in the partnership with Davis. But one came away feeling that Brendel had reached interpretative stalemate with this concerto long before.

  • Read Richard’s review of Colin Davis’s LSO Bruckner 9 here

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