Symphony No.98 in B flat
Piano Concerto No.4 in G, Op.58
Symphony No.2 (The Four Temperaments)
Mitsuko Uchida (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 4 December, 2011
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Colin Davis’s odyssey through Carl Nielsen’s six symphonies continued here, the concert opening with the sixth of Haydn’s ‘London’ Symphonies. No.98 (1792) opens with an Adagio introduction whose expressive austerity was undermined by less than unanimous strings. Come the Allegro though and the London Symphony Orchestra had the measure of its suavity, as well as the engaging contrapuntal interplay of the development. With its notional allusions to a certain national anthem, the slow movement has a deadpan wit all its own; Davis as perceptive here as in the robust Minuet, whose gamesome Trio is as appealing as any Haydn wrote. In its intensive elaboration of nominally unremarkable ideas, the finale is among the most impressive of these final ‘twelve’ and crowned the symphony in appropriately dynamic fashion; Davis mindful to give due prominence to those piquant solos for violin and harpsichord – the latter deftly intervening in the coda.
Mitsuko Uchida then played the Fourth of Beethoven’s Piano Concertos (1806) which, along with its immediate predecessor, tends to come off best in integral cycles these days. Such was true here – notably in an opening movement of imposing weight and seriousness. This enabled crucial shifts in tonal perspective to register more purposefully, while enabling soloist and orchestra to draw maximum expression from their deceptively equable dialogue. Just occasionally, at the transition to the reprise and the arrival at the cadenza, the performance verged on the overwrought; though as Uchida unfolded the earlier of Beethoven’s cadenzas with manifold insight then eased meltingly into the coda, there was little doubt as to the impressiveness of the music-making. If the remaining movements were not quite on this level, that may have been because the intensity hitherto marginally pre-empted that of the Andante – for all that its elemental dialogue was powerfully stated – while the finale suggested a degree of equivocation between soloist and conductor that detracted, however relatively, from its natural spontaneity and poise. Yet the sheer effervescence Uchida drew from the lead-ins to the rondo theme proved no less delightful than the eloquence of her approach to a properly decisive coda.
After the interval, Davis took the LSO through Nielsen’s Second Symphony (1902), hardly a work with which the orchestra is likely to be familiar and one which, despite the distinctive character of its themes, is arguably the hardest of the cycle to make cohere: juxtaposition of the ‘Four Temperaments’ not necessarily making for a unified whole. None of which appeared to faze Davis in his handling of a ‘choleric’ first movement that was rugged and incisive by turns – clarifying the music’s dense textures without at all down-playing its inherent rhetoric, with just the barest touch of inhibition to the coda. The ‘phlegmatic’ intermezzo which follows is as effortlessly realised as anything that Nielsen wrote, its wistful humour exquisitely conveyed here, and if the ‘melancholic’ slow movement did not reach to the heart of the matter, this was owing to a lack of cumulative intensity when the main theme returns after a winsome central interlude, along with the slightly unfocussed end. Following which the ‘sanguine’ finale hardly put a foot wrong (unlike the figure of the composer’s imagined scenario) in its alternation of vigour and artfulness on the way to a peremptory pause then a passage of hesitant string polyphony – out of which the movement emerges with renewed conviction as it powers to its affirmative close. The LSO responded with real enjoyment to a piece that, thanks not least to Davis’s long-term formal control, emerged as less of a symphonic suite and more of a genuine symphony: for which, as for this conductor’s advocacy of Nielsen as this stage during his career, one can only express a measure of gratitude.