LSO/Colin Davis – 2 October

Symphony No.3 in C, Op.52
Violin Concerto in B minor, Op.61

Hilary Hahn (violin)

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 2 October, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Both works on this programme will be issued on CD – the Sibelius on LSO Live and the Elgar (as a studio recording) on Deutsche Grammophon. On the evidence of the actual concert (also given the previous evening), one suspects that the Sibelius is likely to prove the more fascinating of the two.

Sibelius 3 clearly occupies a special place in Davis’s affections. He conducted it at one of his very first concerts with the then Scottish National Orchestra in 1965, which I heard; he has been conducting it ever since – with two recordings already to his credit (in Boston and London). With the LSO on top form, this performance had a coursing vitality and a conviction that on occasion was almost brazen. Recently, London has been fortunate to hear two outstanding performances of this masterpiece, the other being from Osmo Vänskä and the Lahti Symphony during the Proms. (See Prom 40 on this site.)

Both conductors share a deep affinity with the distinctive soundworld of this most Brucknerian of Sibelius’s symphonies. Both have the ability to conjure up those all-important moments of sudden stillness in the midst of high energy. Instead of trying to shoe-horn the music into the mould of a conventional classical symphony, both conductors also seem to grasp intuitively how the Third’s outer movements are a sort of voyage (or saga), and the ’Andantino’ middle movement (which both take at a similarly broad speed) an interior dreamscape. It all goes to show that there is no single way to a great performance of a masterpiece. One looks forward to the LSO CD.

The Elgar was slightly more problematic. Hilary Hahn is a fine violinist and Davis has given us some notable Elgar performances. It’s good that so many international violinists have taken up the Elgar; in this respect Hahn joins a list including Heifetz, Perlman, Zukerman, Kyung-Wha Chung and Midori. Gil Shaham brings it to London next year.

On this occasion everything was too in-your-face. From the over-emphatic orchestral introduction it was clear that restraint would not be the keynote; indeed it was in short supply throughout. Hahn played with great confidence but with an unvarying intensity of tone. Underneath its sometimes-bluff exterior there is an essential fragility about Elgar’s concerto, which can be difficult to penetrate; its quieter moments are confiding. Here, tenderness was in short supply and the emotion seemed too generalised. If the second theme of the finale does not make one catch one’s breath and have a lump in the throat – and here it did not – there is something missing. That said, the finale’s accompanied cadenza was wonderful in its way, but one missed the dappled light and shade of the very best performances.

It is, though, important that young violinists of each generation are encouraged to take the Elgar up, renewing its elusive appeal. One cannot live forever trapped in nostalgia bounded by great recordings and half-remembered performances.

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