Introduction and Allegro, for string quartet and string orchestra, Op.47
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47
Symphony No.1 in B flat minor
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis
Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey
Reviewed: 4 December, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Very occasionally one is privileged to hear a concert which comes as close to perfection as one has any right to expect in an imperfect world. This was one of these rare events. Fortunately, both the Elgar and the Walton were recorded for LSO Live, the only pity being that Midori’s unconventional but highly distinctive reading of the Sibelius was not.
The LSO’s recent New York performance of Verdi’s Requiem has just been awarded a prize for the best New York concert of the season. At this Barbican concert the Elgar received a gloriously full-throated performance, a little too yielding perhaps in the Introduction, which tended to lose impetus, but full of fire thereafter. The piece was written for the then newly-formed LSO, the premiere being under the composer in March 1905. One hundred years on, the LSO musicians still play it as if they own it.
Elgar and Sibelius were both string players; in the first decade of the last century each composer contributed one great violin concerto, both written with innate understanding. Midori may have been some way from the romantic effusions that this work is frequently subjected, but it was guided by a keen intelligence. She has exceptional control of her bowing arm, which enables her to play really softly – her first entry stole in on tiptoe on the finest web of sound – and her intonation, even at the first movement’s close, was well-nigh immaculate.
In Sibelius’s concerto the soloist is a constant presence; this is music which will sustain a wide variety of approaches, provided the soloist’s narration is gripping. Midori was so satisfying: expansive in the first movement, rapt in the slow movement, and pure quicksilver in the finale. Colin Davis and the LSO provided a level of support most soloists could only dream of, restrained where necessary but opening out splendidly in the climaxes and with pinprick accuracy in the “polonaise for polar bears” finale (Tovey’s description). On this occasion these were young polar bears, light on their paws and dancing a foxtrot rather than a polonaise. Many of the work’s most distinctive interpreters have been women – Anja Ignatius (the first woman to record it), Ginette Neveu, Ida Haendel and Viktoria Mullova.
Sibelius’s giant shadow extended to Walton whose First Symphony has many passages clearly inspired by him. Quite simply this was the best, most tightly focussed live performance I have heard and marked a very real improvement on the slightly rough-and-ready one that the orchestra gave in September before setting out for New York. The LSO brings to it a potent combination of power, aggression and finesse. Especially satisfying were those brief moments of repose, lacunae of stillness in the first movement’s ongoing drama, while the long build-up to the climax peaked at exactly the right moment. The scherzo (‘with malice’) was a no-holds-barred display of corporate virtuosity whilst the slow movement’s opening brought a flute solo of quite extraordinary sensitivity, fully matched thereafter by the other wind soloists. For once the finale seemed not a moment too long rather than the symphony’s weakest link, the fugue despatched with an almost tongue-in-cheek insouciance. Hopefully this is the performance that will be issued on LSO Live.