LSO/Colin Davis – Haydn 93 & Nielsen Sinfonia Espansiva – Mitsuko Uchida plays Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto

Symphony No.93 in D
Symphony No.3 (Sinfonia Espansiva)
Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat, Op.73 (Emperor)

Mitsuko Uchida (piano)

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 13 December, 2011
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Sir Colin Davis. Photograph: Alberto Venzago / LSOJust a week after its previous instalment, Colin Davis’s traversal of Carl Nielsen symphonies and Beethoven piano concertos reached its final stage, again prefaced by one of Haydn’s ‘London’ symphonies. First in the sequence if the third to be written, No.93 (1791) tends to be overlooked (possibly because it lacks a nickname!), but is among the most arresting of this final dozen. Interest, moreover, centres not on the first movement (whose main ideas are opposite sides of the same thematic coin), at least after its questing slow introduction, or on a finale whose sleight of hand is at least equalled by its peers; but rather on a Largo whose theme, guilelessly heard on string quartet, is basis for an ingenious conflation of variation and rondo forms, then a Minuet whose geniality finds contrast in its Trio’s martial overtones. Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra duly savoured every facet of this distinctive – and distinctly underrated! – symphony to the full.

Mitsuko Uchida. Photograph: Richard AvedonJumping ahead to the second half and Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto (1809) – one among a select handful of concertos that can justify such a placement – what a weighty performance this proved to be, notably in a first movement that stressed the music’s symphonic dimension to an almost inflexible degree, not helped by a rather portentous emphasis at formal cruxes (not least the transition into and the ending of the reprise) and lack of spontaneity in the more reflective episodes or the ‘false cadenza’ leading into the extended coda. Mitsuko Uchida was notably erratic in some of the more rhetorical passagework: she seemed more at home in the inward eloquence of the slow movement, her customary bell-like sonority deployed to exquisite effect in its closing pages, while the finale brought robust interplay between soloist and conductor – for all that lead-ins to the rondo theme were less than decisive and the deceptive winding-down for piano and timpani prior to the end was not precise enough. The ‘Emperor’ is arguably the hardest of the cycle to bring off nowadays, and while Uchida did not eschew its sustained emotional fervency, there remained a sense that this was not really her concerto: certainly this account found her partnership with Davis at less than its scintillating best.

Prior to the interval, Colin Davis rounded off his Nielsen cycle with a persuasive rendering of the Third Symphony (1911), a work ‘expansive’ in gesture if not in overall duration. Commendable was his decision not to drive the opening movement too hard, so enabling its surging outer portions to unfold with real generosity of spirit and bringing a real lilt to the ‘cosmic waltz’ that underpins its lithe development, though (not for the first time in this cycle) a viable balance between brass and strings was at times lacking. If the slow movement brought any passing disappointment, this was not in a magically floated introduction or in those impulsive exchanges between woodwind and strings that follow, but in a final section whose beatific interplay of timbres was just a touch hard-pressed, thus making coordination with the wordless vocalists (neither soprano Lucy Hall or baritone Marcus Farnsworth were faultless in intonation) a little awkward. A pity, as this is among the most inspired passages in all Nielsen and might have yielded more. There were no real doubts as regards Davis’s handling of the third movement – another of Nielsen’s ingenious conflations of scherzo and intermezzo, not least with the plaintive appearances of its initial oboe theme deftly gaining the upper hand over more incisive responses from strings in what proved a delectably equivocal coda. Hardly less fine was a finale whose open-hearted main theme subtly alters on each of its main appearances, Davis limpidly characterising its pastoral asides before building to a fervent yet never overbearing apotheosis, the triumphal closing pages the more impressive for audibly adhering to the same underlying tempo.

Once again, a fine showing from the LSO in music that it can have performed but seldom: hopefully the four symphonies which have yet to be issued on LSO will appear during the course of next year, completing what has been one of the more remarkable projects to emerge from Sir Colin’s ‘Indian summer’.

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