Happy Birthday Colinchik! – OR – Whoops, Mind that Cake!

The Trojans – Royal Hunt and Storm; Vallon sonore
Chant du ménestrel
Taras Bulba
Concerto for three pianos in F, K242
Bachianas brasileiras No.1 – Préludio

James Naughtie (compère)

Ian Bostridge (tenor)
Mstislav Rostropovich (cello)
Sarah Chang (violin)
Imogen Cooper, Mitsuko Uchida & Radu Lupu (pianos)

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 25 September, 2002
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Amongst the plethora of musical 75ths this year – Rostropovich in March, and Masur in July – Sir Colin Davis turned 75 on 25 September and the London Symphony Orchestra marked the occasion with a special concert. It was perhaps dampened slightly by the tube strike.

The first half was a distinctly curious affair. Not surprisingly, there were some great artists on hand to help the celebrations, but the choices of music were bordering on the mournful. However, no Colin Davis celebration could be without Berlioz, and we started with a resplendent Royal Hunt and Storm with expertly placed offstage brass.Perhaps Bostridge’s slightly diffident and mannered rendition of homesick Hylas’s Vallon sonore was apt in that a fair proportion of the audience would probably have liked another complete performance of the whole opera.

We had to make do with a whistle-stop visit by Rostropovich (whose diminutive name for Sir Colin is Colinchik), although he was in rather subdued form.His choice of the perfectly serviceable Glazunov Minstrel’s Song was odd in that it is rather sombre in tone, but anyone who can get Villa Lobos programmed gets a thumbs up from me, and the ’Préludio’ for eight cellos (Rostropovich in soloist’s position, with seven LSO cellists around him in a semi-circle) was certainly worth hearing, even if Rostropovich’s tone and intonation is not as secure as it once was.

The real fireworks were left to Sarah Chang who brought wit and virtuosity to Sarasate – playing the music for all it was worth, without over-playing it. Hers is a long-standing relationship with Sir Colin and it showed. If we were looking for a soloistic winner in the first half, then Chang won by a mile.

Stiff competition opened the second half with three great pianists on stage in an unusual configuration of pianos for Mozart’s rarely heard (as compere James Naughtie said, perhaps for obvious reasons) Triple Piano Concerto.Imogen Cooper took the first part, facing Mitsuko Uchida playing the second part.Sir Colin stood behind those two pianos, with Radu Lupu’s on his right, backing almost to the wind and horns. Thus Lupu was facing the audience, a most intriguing sight, especially as sometimes it was difficult to ’see’ him playing, even though you could hear him.

There was some confusion as to who interpolated “Happy Birthday” into the cadenza of the first movement. I’ve seen reports to suggest it was Cooper and Uchida, but the fact that Cooper almost corpsed with laughter confirms in my mind that it was impish Lupu (it’s a typically Lupu – Lupine? – thing to do). Of course, this Mozart was an absolute delight – a rarity indeed (I’ve only ever heard one other performance, and that was with Barenboim, Schiff and Solti!), and one played with love, affection and sheer good-humour. A real birthday treat.

Even the somewhat superfluous Naughtie didn’t need to cover the stage re-setting before the final item: Janacek’s Taras Bulba, which was given a vital and bracing performance, with Sir Colin belying his age with swooping gesture and darting lunges. Perhaps – a year into the Barbican Hall’s resplendent new acoustic – we can confirm that the percussion and brass still sound too heavy with the rest of the orchestra, but their distinctive contributions (especially the tubular bells, with a second player on hand to dampen the ringing) were entirely suited to Janacek’s brazen orchestration. Anyone who may have thought Sir Colin has musically mellowed would have been immediately disabused in no uncertain terms.

In retrospect, it would have been great to hear some Elgar (there is an Elgarian walking bass and growing string theme in the second movement of the Janacek, which made some amends). I’m sure there would have been scheduling difficulties in rehearsals, but with Rostropovich on board, couldn’t we have had Elgar’s Concerto?

Thankfully (apart from Naughtie’s introductions) there were no speeches, but all the soloists returned at the end, bestrewn with flowers – as was Sir Colin.A massive iced birthday cake (with one candle, soon blown out) was placed on the conductor’s music stand.It was perhaps indicative of the slightly uncoordinated evening that as the audience left the hall and the orchestra vacated the stage, the weight of the cake flipped the music stand over and the cake landed, icing-side up, on the floor…

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