LSO/Colin Davis [Haydn 99 … Nielsen Sinfonia Semplice … Mitsuko Uchida plays Beethoven PC2]

Symphony No.99 in E flat
Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, Op.19
Symphony No.6 (Sinfonia Semplice)

Mitsuko Uchida (piano)

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 26 May, 2011
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Sir Colin Davis. Photograph: Alberto Venzago / LSOHaving got underway with performances of the Fourth and Fifth symphonies (coupled on an LSO Live release) that were nothing if not distinctive, Colin Davis continued his Nielsen cycle at this concert with a Sixth which had the measure of the work if without getting to the heart of the composer’s most equivocal and provocative symphonic statement.

Premiered to a respectful though evidently nonplussed response in 1925 and unpublished in his lifetime, the Sixth Symphony has often been considered Nielsen’s response to the modernist maelstrom he encountered at that time: the subtitle, ‘Sinfonia Semplice’, a statement more of aspiration than intent, let alone conviction. Previous exponents (and for all its oddities, the symphony is not the least played in the Nielsen canon) have stressed its tendency to expressive extremes or formal non-sequiturs; without eschewing either, Davis opted for a more integrated approach – suggesting the work is a good deal more cohesive than might seem apparent.

Certainly the opening movement is arguably Nielsen’s greatest in terms of long-range tonal implications held in check, but only just, by a deceptively oblique sonata design. Davis accordingly steered a secure yet never wantonly safe course, pointing up the constant interplay of elegance and agitation such as powers the music through to a pulverising climax in the development, then a reprise that, if slightly too temperate here, did not pre-empt the resigned consolation of the coda. Narrower in conception but equally focussed in realisation, the three remaining movements move the symphonic argument forward precisely by undermining it at every turn. Davis’s measured pacing of the ‘Humoreske’ made it feel less of a bizarre jape than usual, woodwind and percussion spurring each other on with a glinting insincerity and the trombone glissandos sounding almost too reined-in, while the ‘Proposta seria’ pursued its trajectory from noble threnody, via distracted fragmentation, to pensive decline with affecting poise. Things faltered overly in the ‘Tema con variazioni’, Davis uncertain how to gauge the follow-through of its admittedly disjunctive variations, so the whole felt less than the sum of its parts. The coda’s headlong fugato was downplayed, with its parting gesture quizzical rather than tenacious.

Make no mistake, this was a sympathetic and often probing account of a disconcerting piece, despatched with accuracy and no mean conviction by the London Symphony Orchestra. Yet those who were present at Osmo Vänskä’s shattering performance at the Proms in the late 1990s or Ole Schmidt’s comparably intense reading in Birmingham a decade ago will likely have found that Davis undersold the music to a degree which can only in part be explained by lack of familiarity. Perhaps the second performance (in a week’s time) will open-out its emotional range accordingly, thus making clearer the Semplice’s status as a symphony in constant and unfulfilled transition.

Mitsuko Uchida. Photograph: Richard AvedonThere was Classicism of a more-easily assimilated kind in the first half. These final concerts in Davis’s Nielsen series also take in the Beethoven piano concertos with Mitsuko Uchida, a partnership which has already offered Mozart interpretations of distinction. Their Beethoven Second Concerto was not quite on this level, but then the essence of this piece – which, for all its indebtedness to Mozart, went through a highly protracted genesis – is itself difficult to pin down, and if Uchida sounded occasionally impatient in the blithe progress of its opening Allegro, repartee between soloist and orchestra in the development was always engaging, while the opening-up of tonal vistas in the (much later) cadenza was eloquently unfolded. Likewise the Adagio, whose wistful pathos never became cloying and whose ‘question and answer’ coda yielded a spellbinding finesse. Bracing without being brusque, the finale displayed its hunting overtones with gusto and made for a vivacious close.

Opening proceedings was Haydn’s Ninety-Ninth Symphony – not among the most familiar of his ‘London’ dozen (probably because it lacks the identifying tag of a nickname), but one which exudes all the hallmarks of its composer’s protean maturity. Davis’s leisurely though never sluggish reading brought out the searching emotion of its Adagio – the transition back to its main theme a marvel of understated profundity – and the robustness of its Minuet. The work’s slow introduction had an imposing stature and while the outer movements were short on élan, their rhythmic sturdiness was itself appropriate for a late-Classical symphony.

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