LSO/Colin Davis Emanuel Ax

Serenade in B flat, K361 (Gran Partita)

Guildhall Wind Ensemble
David Walter (oboe)

Symphony No.35 in D, K385 (Haffner)
Piano Concerto No.22 in E flat, K482
Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma), Op.36

Emanuel Ax (piano)

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis


Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 6 January, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

At 6 o’clock, as a notable upbeat to the London Symphony Orchestra’s concert, the Guildhall Wind Ensemble (directed, from time to time, by oboist David Walter) gave a mellifluous account of Mozart’s seven-movement Serenade that passed 45 minutes or so most agreeably. A double bass was preferred to a contrabassoon and was thus in keeping with Mozart’s manuscript rather than the (posthumously) published score; a string bass is preferable in that it gives a mellow supporting timbre that is distinct to the tones blown by the bassoons and basset horns. Although K361 was here identified solely as ‘Gran Partita’, it was very much the ‘serenade’ aspects of the work that were underlined in this performance. Unforced, beguiling and well-balanced, this account was notable for clarity, expressiveness and flow, the latter not undermining the pathos of the third movement Adagio. In a reading that was vital and varied, and not short of humour, one sensed the enjoyment of the thirteen musicians; their excellent technique may be taken for granted – what really impressed was the players’ confidence and teamwork, and that such skills served the music with imagination and subtlety.

It is said that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Whether true or not, there was a hardly a decent gap between Colin Davis’s final assignment as the LSO’s Principal Conductor (12 December, Handel’s “Messiah”) and his return here as President. Nevertheless, throughout this concert, the rapport between Davis and the orchestra now seemed even closer: it’s rare for an orchestra (to a man and woman) to applaud the conductor onto the platform, but that’s what happened before the Elgar.

Both Mozart and Elgar are central to Davis’s repertoire. The ‘Haffner’ Symphony was big-band and stately but with an impulse, fire and lyrical grace; slightly unkempt ensemble was more than compensated for by a breathing, detailed and malleable rendition. The highlights were a spacious account of the Andante (for which read ‘adagio’), blissfully extended by a full clutch of repeats, and a grand Minuet contrasted with a Trio that was warm-hearted and loving. The finale enjoyed some incisive timpani-playing.

There followed a quite outstanding account of the piano concerto, in a gloriously expansive account. Emanuel Ax was in wonderful form; every note he played had significance – what a range of ‘touch’ – even when he was ‘accompanying’ the orchestra (and the wind section serenaded to perfection). Ax played with rapacious glee and also with a civility that exposed the caprice of the music with joy and perception. Depth, too, as the Andante (adagio again) testified, the strings being raptly pianissimo at the opening and finding Ax limpid in response. If speeds were moderate, such articulation paid many dividends, not least in the finale, which was delightfully truculent and allowed the interpolated minuet to ‘belong’ rather than seeming a diversion.

I know not how often Ax and Davis have previously worked together; whether this was a ‘first’ or not, theirs is a collaboration of genuine musical distinction – alchemy even – one that here, with the LSO completely compliant, displayed the most caring and sharing chamber-music qualities. An Ax/Davis residency in a future LSO season is a mouth-watering prospect.

An aside. It seems that these days if one wants to know the originator of cadenzas (especially in Mozart concertos) you need to ask the soloist. I enquired of Mr Ax during the interval. He smiled and pointed at himself. Splendid creations, the first-movement one has a nineteenth-century feel in its grandeur, while that for the finale is decidedly tongue-in-cheek and includes a few bars for the flute! Conversation ensued, “I’m glad you liked them”, said Ax, with a cheery wave, as he went to find his seat for the Elgar.

In ‘Enigma’ it’s a shame to report that Davis neither employed antiphonal violins (so effective in “Messiah”) nor an organ in the closing bars; ad lib it may be, but the extra heft of subterranean power that it brings is surely a must (although there were nine double basses). Otherwise it was a compelling performance – fluid and tender, emotional and rumbustious – Davis seeing the work whole and with seamless integrity. The climax came with ‘Nimrod’ (hushed, dignified and glowing) – the self-portrait finale was without bombast or distension – and ‘Dorabella’ was deliciously witty. There were excellent solos from viola (Paul Silverthorne), cello (the guest principal unidentified!) and clarinet (Andrew Marriner), the latter confiding in his intoning of the quotation from Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage (as Stephen Johnson’s programme note had it). But is it? Some commentators believe the quote is from Schumann’s Piano Concerto. Another enigma! A deliberate red-herring on Elgar’s part? This endlessly fascinating work continues to intrigue.

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