LSO/Colin Davis & George Benjamin

Brandenburg Concerto No.6 in B flat, BWV1051 *
Viola, Viola #
Three Inventions for Chamber Orchestra ~
The Firebird [Original 1910 Version]

Paul Silverthorne & Edward Vanderspar (violas) * #

Members of the London Symphony Orchestra *

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis
George Benjamin ~

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 8 May, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

One sometimes surveys London orchestras’ bills of fare with more than a touch of déjà vu – same pieces, different conductors. Take Firebird (in its big-orchestra 1910 originality) – it was just a few months ago that the LSO played it for Boulez and, come this December, Colin Davis will dispense two further performances. (Gergiev led it a few months ago, and the Philharmonia Orchestra has one lined up for its new season too.) We are, of course, talking quality here – something to be treasured in our generally cheap and superficial age; such reoccurrence of musical excellence is not to be underestimated when set against the loop of mostly-rubbish TV programmes: I’m not a celebrity – get me to a concert! Except people aren’t going, or at least not to this or the LSO’s previous “By George!” evening. London audiences flock to the obvious but can’t go with something a little adventurous; you can’t really blame promoters for playing it safe, BBC excepted.

This is not to deny, of course, such winners as the Philharmonia Orchestra’s “Music of Today” concerts, firmly established now, or such seasonal initiatives as the LPO’s Julian Anderson “Focus” and, most pertinently to this concert, the LSO’s “By George!” programmes. Just a few days ago, only a relative handful of us turned up for some superlative Berlioz. Was it Stravinsky and Benjamin that had such a detrimental effect regarding ’bums on seats’? What was the problem tonight with Bach, Firebird, and two more of George Benjamin’s finely crafted opuses?

In fact, there was only one thing disappointing with this concert – that Colin Davis did NOT conduct Brandenburg 6. (This should have been made clear in the publicity.) Your reviewer – an authentic-performance sceptic – was anticipating time-taken, big-band Bach to get the ’historically-informed’ brigade hopping! What we had was Bach’s prescribed two solo violists, three cellists, a bass player and a rather inconsequential-sounding harpsichord. Not the most ’well-tempered’ rendition ever albeit pleasingly paced and played with alertness and heart; Moray Welsh’s cello commentaries stole the performance.

Benjamin’s Viola, Viola occupied Messrs Silverthorne and Vanderspar (the LSO’s co-principals) for ten minutes or so – they made their entries from opposing sides and negotiated their own line of music (and music stands) in this physically separated, musically entwined journey that stretches the viola’s tonal palette and ’quiet voice’ expression well beyond its customary-assumed character; Viola, Viola is music of fecund imagination, dramatic impulse and rhythmic ingenuity, which concludes with pizzicato shards.

Nimbus has already recorded a number of Benjamin’s pieces – NI 5505 and NI 5643 – and the composer advises a third CD is being made this year; hopefully including the viola duo, Three Inventions already documented. The first (remembering Messiaen) is reflective in mood, luminescent-sounding and develops a light rhythmic tread before a songful flugelhorn steals the air. The second is a masquerade of rhythmic and harmonic dislocation, while the third (for Alexander Goehr) is made of dark tentacles of sound antiphonally framed by percussion – tolling gongs and bass drum shots; the final ’hammer’ recalls Berg’s Op.6. Did Benjamin use Berg’s Three Pieces as a template?

The music that occupied this concert’s first half truly demonstrated that centuries of creativity are made indivisible when substance is the composer’s prerequisite.

Although much could be written about Colin Davis’s 50-minute Firebird, all that need be said is that it was utterly compelling. Davis’s secret is that he sees the work whole – perspicaciously thought-through, no stranger to macabre Russian legend, glorying in spectral colours, tiptoe lightness of touch and sinuous lines of expression articulated through a refined and translucent soundworld with nothing forced, overcooked or for display. The LSO’s response was as immaculate as it was refined; great ensemble playing. From bar one, Davis suggested that something explosive was lurking: ’Kaschei’s Dance’, here properly infernal with nothing leading up to it dampening its impact.

Firebird complete can have its longeurs (persuasively trimmed by Leonard Slatkin at last year’s Proms): however slow-burn the lyrical and ’love’ portions were from Davis, this Firebird was a tribute to his interrelated approach and ear for detail – iridescently sounded, such ’orchestral theatre’ led towards then away from hellish activity; when the mists cleared and Kaschei’s death-rattle sounded, all was triumph and light.

  • Concert recorded for BBC Radio 3 and broadcast on Thursday 15 May at 7.30
  • LSO
  • “By George!” continues on 5 June [Zinman] and on 9 July [Pappano]

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