LSO/Colin Davis – 4 May

Symphony of Psalms
Sometime Voices
Roméo et Juliette – Dramatic Symphony, Op. 17: Three Scenes – Queen Mab (Scherzo); Love Scene; Romeo Alone … Capulets’ Ball

William Dazeley (baritone)

London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 4 May, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Programming a series within a series is never easy, and the present concert – part of the “By George!” sequence of events – had the feeling of being assembled around the Benjamin work. The outcome was a pitifully small house by LSO standards, though the quality of the music and performances made the evening more than worthwhile.

Certainly it would be hard to imagine a more passionate response to Symphony of Psalms than that of Sir Colin Davis – a conductor whose Stravinsky credentials were established early in his conducting career. The sheer intensity of the choral singing in the cumulative build-up of Psalm 38, and the culminating double fugue of Psalm 39 were spine-tingling, while trenchancy of attack in the allegro sections of Psalm 150 was complemented by the restrained fervour of the ’Alleluia’ and ’Laudate’ settings on either side. Davis did much to surmount the balance problems inherent in Stravinsky’s instrumentation – with its absence of violins and violas, and the use of two pianos and low woodwind writing – while giving the brass its head when impact was necessary. A memorable performance.

Sometime Voices must rank among the less heard of George Benjamin’s works. Commissioned to open the inaugural concert at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall in 1996, it sets part of a speech by Caliban from Act 3 of “The Tempest” – describing the magical sounds to be heard on the island. To be honest, the primary interest lies in the ravishing timbres Benjamin draws from a large orchestra resourcefully employed; the choral writing, focussing on the name Caliban, and the slightly contrived lines for solo baritone – vividly projected by William Dazeley, standing in at short notice for Alan Opie – sound laid over rather than integrated with the orchestral tissue. Even so, there is some evocative music here (building to a sustained climactic tutti in the manner of Lutoslawski’s Les Espaces du sommeil) – which, coming after the Stravinsky, survived the testing comparison well.

More dreams and imaginative flights of fancy after the interval, with music from Berlioz’s ’dramatic symphony’ Roméo et Juliette. Now that the complete work has established itself in the concert repertoire, the need to devise an effective order for the purely orchestral sections no longer exists. Davis gave us the three movements that constitute Part 2, albeit in reverse order. Compared to his full traversal in February, Queen Mab seemed more affectionate than lithe, and the Love Scene’ – shorn of its departing Capulets at the opening – was even closer to Beethoven in its interplay of moods and motion. Romeo Alone’ brought some marvellously rapt playing from the LSO strings, while Capulets’ Ball provided a lively and effective end to the torso. Sir Colin clearly enjoyed himself – as did those who had made the effort to attend!

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