LSO/Colin Davis Arabella Steinbacher – Beethoven & Sibelius

Violin Concerto in D, Op.61
Surface [Part of UBS Soundscapes: Pioneers,commissioned by LSO Discovery: first performance]
Symphony No.5 in E flat, Op.82

Arabella Steinbacher (violin)

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis
Pavel Kotla [Surface]

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 8 October, 2009
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The UBS commission aside, concerts do not come much more mainstream than this, but however familiar the music there was never a hint of routine. In Sibelius Sir Colin Davis and the LSO just seem to go from strength to strength whilst in the Beethoven the partnership with Arabella Steinbacher produced very fruitful results.

Arabella Steinbacher. ©Robert Vano Steinbacher may not yet be a household name – but she will be – for she has now played with many of the world’s major orchestras and made several recordings. Beethoven Violin Concerto emerged freshly minted, its opening movement a genuine Allegro ma non troppo instead of the all-too-frequent dreary trudge. Sir Colin uses the fullest possible string complement and invests the tuttis with enormous Heft. However, what came across was the frequency of Beethoven’s marking dolce which crops up time and again. Beethoven also marks the violin part violino principale and Steinbacher, who has remarkably pure intonation, certainly gave the illusion of a primus inter pares, often emerging from within the orchestra and playing along with it rather than treating her role as that of a conventional soloist. For much of its duration this was chamber music writ large.

This was a reading which grew in stature as it progressed; if there had been a slight element of ’emotion recollected in tranquillity’ about some of the first movement (the cadenza was utterly riveting though), the performance found its fullest flowering in a deeply penetrating account of the Larghetto and the lilting, joyous finale in which Steinbacher’s perfect balance in the double-stopped passages was a constant pleasure. By the time we reached the cadenza it was as though any hint of restraint had been cast aside and we were demob happy. In short, a joy from start to finish.

Sir Colin Davis. Photograph: Alberto Venzago / LSOPerhaps the most interesting thing about Paul Newland’s Surface, a five-minute piece admirably conducted by Pavel Kotla, was how seamlessly it connected to the Sibelius symphony which followed. For much of its duration Surface forms a web of string sound with colours gradually added and subtracted from the palette, rather like closely observing a phenomenon of nature over several minutes and then gradually discovering that there is more to it than one at first thought.

Colin Davis has been indelibly linked with Sibelius’s music for many years – fifty have elapsed since I heard him conduct the Third Symphony with the Scottish National Orchestra – and he now commands an unparalleled authority in this repertoire. Not everything was perfect but two outstanding features were the sheer certainty with which the music flowed ever onwards throughout the entire work, with passages like the wandering bassoon passage (Rachel Gough) in the first movement superbly integrated into the overall structure, and secondly the emotional weight accorded to the Andante mosso second movement. All too often this is treated simply as a delicate interlude. On this occasion it shared equal importance with the outer movements and – especially with the finale taken attacca – for once it seemed that the whole symphony operated on a similar continuum of unbroken intensity.

A particular word of praise for the quality and weight of the LSO’s current string sound which is of remarkable depth and penetration, so much so that they fully held their own against the brass in the final peroration.

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