London Symphony Orchestra – New Season

Piano Concerto No.21 in C, K467
Symphony No.1 in A flat

Piano Concerto No.22 in E flat, K482
Symphony No.2 in E flat

Mitsuko Uchida (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Colin Davis

Reviewed by: David Wordsworth

Reviewed: 4 October, 2001
Venue: 30 September and 4 October 2001, Barbican Hall, London

These concerts not only saw the opening of the LSO’s 2001-2 season, but were almost the first concerts in the newly refurbished Barbican Hall. (Richard Hickox and the City of London Sinfonia rather oddly beat the resident orchestra by one night.)

The first thing to say is that the acoustic has undoubtedly improved – the sound now actually travels towards the back ofthe Hall rather than stopping after the first few rows. One can nowgenuinely hear intricate detail – for instance, in these concerts, the intertwining woodwind lines in the Mozart concertos – rather than imagine it, as was often the case before. The LSO obviously need time to get used to its ’new’ home; one often had the feeling, more so on the first night, that the orchestra was a little too prominent in the Mozart. There were some odd balances in the Elgar too – the brass was just too loud (but that is hardly a new problem with this orchestra!) and some of the harp figurations in Elgar’s First Symphony hit one between the eyes in a way that they never would have done before. However, these are points that can easily be worked on and corrected – the overall impression is very positive and encouraging.

Soloist and conductor enjoyed themselves hugely in the two concertos – they understand each other (though Uchida obviously had a different idea about the tempo of K467’s last movement) and their relaxed manner brought a beautiful and sensitive accompaniment from the orchestra. The heart-stopping lyricism of the F major slow movement of K467 – with its ’Elvira Madigan’ associations – was particularly outstanding. Uchida’s playing was, by turns, playful, delicate and civilised. The slightly less well known (but to my mind more interesting) K482, with its unusual last movement (a jaunty rondo interrupted by a slightly sinister minuet), was wonderfully brought off.

And so to Elgar – and two very different responses. The First Symphony, with the exception of a rather plodding last movement, was magnificent. The big ’nobilmente’ theme of the first movement striding across the orchestra can have rarely sounded so, well, nobilmente! What a wonderful movement it is, especially when as carefully paced and brilliantly played as here. The ending had that air of uncertainty and mystery that perfectly prepares us for the even more unstable scherzo, in which the contrast between the rather bleak march and the calmer episodes that hints at the lighter side of Elgar’s musical personality was particularly fine; some wonderfully expressive woodwind playing. If the beginning of the last movement was the only time that tension slackened, the ending was nothing short of overwhelming. The combination of the ’motto’ idea with great surging waves from the whole orchestra is one of Elgar’s greatest moments.

Whilst happy to acclaim Elgar One as a masterpiece, the Second has always left me confused – I just can’t follow it through. For this writer it only really comes to life in the last movement and that is mostly to do with the gorgeous orchestration towards the end. But what a long way one has to go before getting to that point! The whole piece just seems to lumber on and on; I’m afraid that the “Spirit of Delight” doesn’t come to me. Sir Colin Davis’s performance left me rather exhausted – it was certainly on a huge scale, but for the most part almost unbearably intense; even the second movement, supposedly a funereal elegy, seemed to teeter on the edge all the time. The scherzo was positively demonic – as Stephen Johnson rightly pointed out in his programme note, many find this movement more devilish than the demon’s chorus in The Dream of Gerontius. Nothing seemed to be resolved in the last movement – maybe it’s not meant to be and I am misunderstanding the whole.

If one can have nothing but praise for the playing of the LSO, what would have been welcome was some let-up in this somewhat too overpowering experience.

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