LSO/Colin Davis in New York (19 & 21 January)

19 January

En saga, Op.9
Symphony No.3 in C, Op.52
Symphony No.5 in E flat, Op.82

21 January

Symphony No.8 in F, Op.93
The Firebird (1910)

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 21 January, 2004
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, New York City

In December 1997, Sir Colin Davis conducted the LSO in a two-week Sibelius Festival, “Northern Lights”, that thrilled audiences at Avery Fisher Hall. I remember the performances I heard of the Fourth and Seventh Symphonies as being supple, sonorous and undeniably excellent. This past January 19, for the second in a three-concert series marking the centenary of the LSO, Davis and the orchestra were back in Avery Fisher Hall with another all-Sibelius program in which the playing was indisputably fine.The performance of the Fifth Symphony was especially admirable. Davis has long been an important and persuasive interpreter of Sibelius, and in this account of the Fifth he brought a clarity and breadth which allowed events to unfold without compromising the strangeness of the music. Nothing in the performance was obvious or forced. It offered a welcome blend of dramatic imagination and clear-headed restraint. The expansive first movement was allowed to unfold with inexorable steadiness, and the restless final movement was held back in tempo, and especially remarkable for the mysterious and wonderful way Davis brought out the impassioned melodies in the violins and the great circling phrases of the horn theme. The LSO played with precision, refinement, and extraordinary dynamic control throughout the entire work.

Sir Colin’s restraint also benefited En saga, the 1892 tone poem that opened the concert. The dramatic music tells no particular story, but instead blends pathetic and heroic elements to create the atmosphere of Nordic legend. Davis delivered a lithe, briskly paced rendering in which the polytonality of the horn and wind passages and the shimmering sonorities of the strings were especially evident. The quiet episode, with which the work closes, a clarinet solo accompanied by muted strings, was done to absolute perfection.

Without reaching the rarefied heights of the performance of the Fifth, Sir Colin’s account of the rarely heard Third Symphony was lucid and insightful. The robust themes of the opening Allegro moderato, the beguiling, bittersweet music of the Andantino con moto, and the stunning power of the finale were all persuasively captured.

All in all, this was a scintillating and well rendered program, with the LSO on top form and the roaring standing ovation fully deserved.

For the final program in the LSO’s three-concert series at Lincoln Center, Beethoven’s friendly, light-hearted Eighth Symphony was combined with Stravinsky’s masterful and lavish ballet, The Firebird.

Sir Colin’s account of Beethoven’s Eighth was a lively one in which the orchestra was completely with him and responded ably and energetically to everything he wanted. This was a marvellous performance. From the loud tutti passage that opens the work to the bustling finale, it was full of imagination, humor, drama and rhythmic life. The Allegretto, with its unexpected forte outbursts and occasional doubling of rhythmic speeds, was especially sparkling and witty. And the horn solo in the minuet sounded magnificent.

In his later years, Stravinsky spoke critically of The Firebird. In a conversation with his protégé and student, conductor Robert Craft, he contended that the story “demanded descriptive music of a kind I did not want to write” and that the orchestra he had used was “wastefully large”. Nevertheless it has become one of Stravinsky’s most popular works, best known through the three suites the composer fashioned in 1911, 1919 and 1945.

Sir Colin’s reading of The Firebird was magically evocative, full of orchestral coloration and rhythmically incisive from beginning to end. Episode after episode of this familiar music seemed startlingly fresh. Throughout the performance, Davis drew brilliant playing from the orchestra, always maintaining the vital excitement and drama, and revealing details of the rich texture that are sometimes obscured. From the mysterious, dangerous sounds of the low strings at the beginning, the concentration steadily increased and the orchestral colors became more and more pronounced, the song-like melody of the Princesses’ Round Dance contrasting with the orchestral wallops of Kastchei’s Infernal Dance. That the audience was no gathering of Stravinsky fanatics became clear when the blazing climax of the Infernal Dance was met with scattered applause and bravos from people in the hall who mistakenly thought the performance was over!

This was a vibrantly executed concert in all respects, which was rewarded by rousing cheers and extended applause.

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