LSO/Colin Davis [Haydn 99 … Nielsen Sinfonia Semplice … Mitsuko Uchida plays Beethoven PC1]

Symphony No.99 in E flat
Piano Concerto No.1 in C, Op.15
Symphony No.6 (Sinfonia Semplice)

Mitsuko Uchida (piano)

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 2 June, 2011
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Mitsuko Uchida. Photograph: Richard AvedonFor the second time of asking, Sir Colin Davis and the LSO played symphonies by Haydn and Nielsen and were again joined by Mitsuko Uchida in a Beethoven piano concerto, this time a performance of the alleged No.1 (in fact the Third) that began promisingly with a vigorous, elegant and playful orchestral introduction. Beyond doubt is the close personal and musical rapport between Uchida and Davis, but this is a more rough-hewn and gauntlet-thrown-down work than we received here; in the first movement Uchida’s playing, however musical, unaffected and agreeable, bordered on the precious and the pretty (too Mozartean) with fortissimos bringing colourless tone and brittle attack. She chose the longest of Beethoven’s three first-movement cadenzas, a five-minute indulgence in this interpretative context, and it’s a more erratic beast than it was made to be here; far too sane. The finale lacked for mischief and schwung – too straight, no jazz. The slow movement though was movingly eloquent and blessed with sensitive and expressive clarinet solos from Andrew Marriner. Earlier the Haydn symphony’s slow introduction had been full-toned and weighty, followed by an allegro of robustness and humour in perfect accord to which the deep beauty of the slow movement added gravitas to the work. The Minuet was courtly and infectious, the finale graceful yet incisive with a twinkle-in-the-eye quality that was joyous.

Sir Colin Davis. Photograph: Alberto Venzago / LSOAs for Carl Nielsen’s final and (arguably) greatest symphony, a work in which nothing is what it seems – except maybe the ‘rude’ gesture made by bassoons to close the symphony! Discursive, subversive, how much in the second-movement ‘Humoreske’ is a Mickey-take (maybe of Varèse in the writing for percussion), how much a ‘joining to rather than a beating of’ the modernists of the day (‘Sinfonia Semplice’ is from 1925)? ‘Simple’ many of the musical ideas may be, yet their effect is deeply complex, ambiguous, nightmarish and surreal. Parodistic, too, not least in the waltz that emerges during the Variations of the finale; but it’s the Shakespearian if mocking fanfare that cues the ‘exit stage left’ coda, concurrently hilarious and sad, as Nielsen bows out; very personal. And this is a symphony that is all about the composer, but not in breast-beating ‘listen to me’ mode (who manages to also anticipate Shostakovich and contemporise with Charles Ives, if through no contact with the latter but breathing similar ‘contradictory’ air, yet always be true to himself – every bar is 24-carat Nielsen). The intensity of the slow movement (‘Proposta seria’) reminds of the ‘Inextinguishable’ Symphony (No.4), but that is of universal recognition; in No.6 it is about ‘self’, but not self-centredness. If Colin Davis didn’t declare any particular ‘side’ to the work, his success – aided by an on-top-form LSO – was to bring out and place unerringly what is already in the score. It wasn’t neutral – far from it – but Davis suggested that this is music so open to interpretation (and wildly differing reactions) that the composer’s notation should be totally trusted. If a musical masterpiece (and Nielsen 6 is one) can also be irregular, then here is the perfect example of such a creation, aided by a conductor finding no need to enhance it. Should this all seem commensurately non-committal, be in no doubt that this was a terrific performance of a remarkable piece.

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