The Confession of Isobel Gowdie
Piano Concerto No.21 in C, K467
Symphony No.4 in F minor, Op.36
Mitsuko Uchida (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis
Reviewed by: Colin Clarke
Reviewed: 3 March, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Recently at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Colin Currie and the London Philharmonic presented what must surely be James MacMillan’s most frequently performed piece, the percussion concerto Veni, Veni Emanuel. Over the river at the Barbican Centre, it was the London Symphony’s turn with the massive orchestral work The Confession of Isobel Gowdie (which it and Sir Colin Davis had performed a week or so before). I last heard this work in the same hall as part of the January 2005 BBC Symphony MacMillan Weekend, “Darkness into Light” (itself an apt description of ‘Gowdie’!).
The work centres on a ‘witch’ (Gowdie), who confessed to a baptism by the devil and belonging to a coven of thirteen, among other ‘witchy’ misdemeanours; MacMillan ends his work with “a prayer for the murdered woman” and hands this to the listener as ‘the Requiem that Isobel Gowdie never had’. The work moves from darkness to string halos of light. The hard edges of MacMillan’s writing, on paper at least, seemed to place it outside of Sir Colin Davis’s repertoire. If there was a failing, it lay in the tendency of any hint of melody to be emphasised and over-Romanticised. Edges were often blunted, and wind, brass and percussion staccato chords could have been punchier. Yet set against this was the carefully graded textural build-up of the opening (set in deepest purple, for those who hear in colours) and the fact that many individual strands were clearly identifiable at the work’s main climax. The sudden post-apocalyptic warmth of the lower strings was very effective, too.
It would be difficulty to imagine a greater contrast in pieces than that between the MacMillan and Mozart’s most popular piano concerto. In between, during platform manoeuvres, there was a slide-show on large screens placed either side of the platform to help celebrate the Barbican Centre’s 25th-anniversary.
The difference between these first two works was perhaps mirrored when comparing soloist and conductor in the concerto. Davis’s orchestral exposition was rather heavy, its only real virtue being something of a sense of anticipation before the piano’s entrance. Uchida, one of the most reliable pianists, stood in high contrast as she delivered the solo part with the utmost sense of rightness. Everything seemed perfectly judged and graded; the more mysterious harmonic excursions were magical, with the cadenza full of risks. The famous “Elvira Madigan” Andante mirrored the first movement, with ill-balanced woodwinds setting off Uchida’s exquisitely sung line (astonishing finger legato here). Her left-hand sforzandos came as a surprise at one point (underlining the violins’ accents). Less surprising was her tasteful approach to added ornamentation. The delightful finale stressed fluency. Uchida’s tumbledown scales spoke of pure joie de vivre and, in a bid to prove they had woken up, the woodwinds provided delightful conversation with Uchida.
Colin Davis is not immediately associated with Tchaikovsky, either.In the event, although one’s whole jaw dropped regularly at the LSO’s expertise, there was little special about this interpretation. Textures in the first movement were occasionally muddied and, despite cutting through the orchestra adequately, the trombones towards the end lacked essential doom-laden edge. Only Rachel Gough’s superb bassoon solos, beautifully presented, will linger in the memory here, as will the charming oboe solos of the Andantino in modo canzona. Careful balancing in the scherzo was not enough to disguise the distinctly under-tempo approach (it sounded like a practice speed!); the finale, beginning with a thunk, as opposed to a blaze of light, emerged in colouristic terms as a sort of muddied yellow. Contrasts could have been far starker. Some interesting hints of string portamento and an undeniably exciting close were not enough to compensate for the shortcomings, though.