LSO/Colin Davis – 16 Feb

Harold in Italy – Symphony, Op.16
Symphonie fantastique, Op.14

Tabea Zimmermann (viola)

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 16 February, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

La pauvre France. Fresh from the unexpected Debacle of its team’s defeat the previous day at the hands of Les Anglais Perfides in the 6-Nation Rugby and, as if to rub salt into the already-open wound, here we were being treated to the opening salvo of a three-programme celebration of France’s greatest composer, Berlioz, with Colin Davis and the LSO – in this music the world’s undisputed champion combination of conductor and orchestra. Is nothing sacred! In fact, to be absolutely fair, the perfidious English have not had it all their own way of late – last month Lorin Maazel and the Philharmonia Orchestra delivered an excellent account; Maazel is partly French, so honour is partly restored. The differences between the two performances proved enlightening.

First though from the LSO was Harold in Italy – what a performance, immeasurably enhanced by the superlative viola playing of Tabea Zimmermann. In fact, it was worth attending the concert simply to have heard this obbligato role played like this. From the keening slow introduction Zimmermann immediately had us catching our collective breath with some magically turned soft phrasing. When the ’Allegro’ took off there was no lack of panache or power either. Her combination of innate musicality and technical address makes her a near ideal soloist in this music – assertive without drawing attention and with glorious tone, she more than rides the orchestral melee where necessary and has the capacity to withdraw into introspective shadows and still hold us on a gossamer thread.

Nowhere was this more clearly evident than in the viola’s long sul ponticello passage in the Pilgrim’s March second movement, played with breathtaking control and a protracted diminuendo, matched note for note by some exquisitely sensitive orchestral playing. End of movement. Total silence. QED. In the Serenade which followed, perfectly paced by Davis, one had a palpable sense of the viola as an actual character on stage, standing melancholy and a little apart from the surrounding rustic revels. The Brigands Orgy finale found the LSO at something like full stretch, like hounds off a leash and playing with brazen enthusiasm. The Palme d’Or though goes to Zimmermann whose playing was star class – to quote Baudelaire, “Calme, Luxe et Volupte”.

Theoretically the Symphonie fantastique should have been de trop but was in fact equally distinguished. Hard to imagine that only 27 years separate the Eroica (1803) and the Fantastique. Davis is a natural Beethovenian and his performances of Berlioz, whilst they have a remarkable feel for the asymmetric angularity of Berlioz’s melodic lines as well as the warp and woof of the highly individual orchestral textures, remain strongly classical.

This performance offered an interesting contrast with Maazel’s Philharmonia Fantastique last month (coupled with the Eroica), which was a more overtly virtuoso “in your face” account (and none the worse for that) under the most technically accomplished conductor of our time. The LSO too has this music deep in its group psyche and plays this music with a shared excitement to project a peculiarly effective sense of Berlioz’s highly distinctive soundworld. Despite one or two early entries, this seemed a more-engaged performance than the one I recall a couple of years ago.

With what fluidity Davis shapes the idée fixe in the first movement ’Reveries’ – repeat taken – and how effective were the double bass interjections (with 9 basses on this occasion really making their presence felt). ’Un bal’ was realised with a certain chaste elegance, but sensual nonetheless. The ’Scene aux champs’ was unforgettable in its contained classicism, breathless, melancholy and ultimately forlorn; my only slight criticism being that the timpani’s muffled thunder did not tell as much as it might have, the different entries were curiously undifferentiated. Unlike Maazel who – like Munch before him – takes the ’March to the Scaffold’ at high speed, more full-blooded Charge than a March, Davis’s slower speed allowed for something more sinister and much greater menace, the brass interjections bitingly visceral. In the ’Witches’ Sabbath’, rightly introduced attacca, the orchestra cut loose to thrilling effect.

These concerts are billed as a “Berlioz Celebration”. For once the word is entirely apposite – as a celebration not only of Berlioz but also of a conductor and orchestra that have devoted a lifetime to this music. Was it really 40 years ago that I first head them launch so thrillingly together into Berlioz’s King Lear Overture in Edinburgh’s Usher Hall?

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