ECO at the Barbican – 17 May

Sinfonia concertante in E flat (K364)
Symphony No.100 in G ’Military’

Christian Tetzlaff (violin)
Wolfram Christ (viola)

English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Sir Colin Davis

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 17 May, 2001
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Some of Colin Davis’s earliest successes were with the ECO and Stravinsky; it was encouraging at this concert to find him returning to a composer who he’s not featured too heavily in recent years. It’s become latterly characteristic of Davis’s concerts that scores new to him (or which he is returning to after quite an absence) have a freshness and involvement not always to be found in those works that are constants.

Davis led an engrossing account of Apollo, one absolutely attuned to its neo-classical demeanour. The baroque forms and black-and-white scoring (string orchestra) establishes the music’s timeless parameters, the ECO’s smallish body of strings ample in ’Apollo’s variation’ and ideal in numbers for the seraphic beauty of the ’pas de deux’. Above all it was Davis’s masterly whole-viewing of this 30-minute (his timing) ballet that so effectively underlined the birth-to-death scenario: Apollo’s arrival was innocent and gently questing; come his demise the same music was greyed with experience. The set-pieces were characterised by an integration of pulse that threw a line from the Baroque period over to the twentieth-century – double-dotting could be heard as syncopation, ’chorus’ (in the Greek sense) became a football chant and ’aria antique’ was a popular song; all examples of Stravinsky’s genius for making contemporary pre-ordained templates. Colin Davis proved a perceptive, unindulgent guide who relished the harmonic dissolve of music that doesn’t emote or describe but intrinsically communicates a universal understanding.

Davis appreciates Haydn’s jokes too – the brilliantly-timed pause before the first-movement development raised a smile; and he relished the foreshortened recapitulation (ideas return earlier than anticipated) – ’caught you’ the composer says.

Allowing that the Barbican acoustic swallows certain middle-dynamic frequencies, which gives the impression that ensemble is less precise than it is, Haydn’s first movement could have been more comfortably articulated at a less hasty pace; the exposition repeat was tighter. If high spirits typified this ’Military’, it didn’t quite have the shaping and journeying of gesture that is echt-Haydn and makes him among the very greatest composers. It should also be said that No.100 is not, by Haydn’s exalted standards, among his pinnacles of ideas and experimentation – the extra percussion suggests a divertissement, a passing dalliance, rather than an inimitable crafting of form and invention.

Tetzlaff’s typical quicksilver and dashing way with Mozart informed K364, a standpoint anticipated but potentially at cross-purposes with Davis’s more moulded and expressive Mozartian credentials. Both Davis and Wolfram Christ (replacing Tabea Zimmermann) accommodated Tetzlaff. I suspect Christ – a quite superb violist, dark-toned and intonationally beyond reproach – would have liked more time than the harried outer movements allowed. Only the Heaven-sent slow movement really registered. If Tetzlaff lacked the deeper response of Christ and Davis, he justified the outer movements’ hurry in terms of his technique but not in fully realising the music’s internalism and requirement to breathe.

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