Symphony No.34 in C, K338
Piano Concerto No.20 in D minor, K466
Symphony No.5, Op.50
Radu Lupu (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 1 October, 2009
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Colin Davis and Mozart – as synonymous as him ‘… and Berlioz’ or ‘… and Sibelius’. Symphony 34 started promisingly with a warmly affectionate first movement, crisp, hard-stick timpani (Antoine Bedewi a very welcome guest) and bright-toned trumpets adding a ceremonial touch, Davis’s flexible approach ensuring nothing was lost to the metronome, not least the subdued beginning to the development, an ear-catching implosion. The remaining two movements weren’t quite so impressive (Davis might have added the lightly-tripping Minuet, K409, believed to be related to the symphony, but he didn’t), the slow one anything but, indeed its flow was enough to compromise ensemble between the (lumped-together) violin sections and phrasing was somewhat harried, and the finale (Davis might have played at least one of the repeats, but he observed neither), although reasonably fiery and detailed, lacked edge.
Colin Davis and Radu Lupu – a partnership not to be missed. The pianist sat on his trademark kitchen chair and following a surreptitious introduction, double basses (just the four) nagging away, he was typically and rewardingly subtle and consoling; Lupu turns the ‘normal’ on its head and convinces he’s got it right and the rest are wrong! This wasn’t introverted though, for Lupu drawers you in, makes you listen, feeds an emotional undercurrent; it’s enough. Not everything came off, though; there were some finger-slips and, as for the symphony, the slow movement was hasty, ornaments awkwardly turned, and if the tempestuous middle section was more of a light breeze, it’s a tonic when any musician avoids the obvious. Lupu can remonstrate, he did so, judiciously, in the first movement, enough to justify playing Beethoven’s cadenza (ah, but with such finesse) and the finale had drive without fluster (the cadenza here, Lupu’s own, maybe, was something of a stylistic departure). With LSO woodwinds in particularly sparkling and expressive form, and Colin Davis securing a tailor-made accompaniment (a literally dynamic, and dovetailing, relationship), Lupu – not quite at his exalted best, if deeply considered and spontaneous – still made one listen afresh.
Colin Davis and Carl Nielsen – hardly an everyday combination. Whenever Davis (recently turned 82) conducts something new to him, or that has not come his way for many years, he finds an extra physical vigour and a twinkle in the eye that suggests he’s really enjoying himself. Such was the case here; not that ‘enjoying’ should suggest glibness. As ever from Davis, a seriousness of purpose informed every bar, of here what is a great (early-1920s) symphony, written by a great composer, which, worryingly, and judging from comments, quite a few people in this audience seem never to have heard before!
Whether Nielsen 5 is a “War Symphony” (Simon Rattle) or not, Davis placed the emphasis on ‘symphony’, a particularly cogent affair; if the opening violas were hazy rather than incisive, and the landscape pastoral rather than eerie – arguably too comfortable – this was a reading appreciative of Nielsen’s individuality, the rhythmic patterns, a big-hearted performance, dignified – with even some Elgarian nobilmente (LSO strings ecstatic, Gordan Nikolitch leading, Moray Welsh heading up the cellos, good to see them back) – that maintained a symphonic trajectory despite Neil Percy’s pretty-good attempts at halting the orchestra’s progress (as Nielsen requests – a few rim shots would have helped, and the player is given a license to improvise), the side drum’s ‘retreat’ well-managed and Andrew Marriner’s closing clarinet solo wonderfully reflective.
Even finer was the second (last) movement, Davis pushing onwards without sacrificing Nielsen’s web of counterpoint (indeed, this was a meticulously balanced performance), a masterclass in how to accumulate and release tension (and speed) at exactly the right moment. Davis took the fugal section earnestly, no hobgoblins here (to advantage), and the slow epilogue before the coda was eloquently turned before the final defiance blazed magnificently, LSO brass – superb throughout – was never loud enough to drown out the strings and detail (be it trilling trumpets or shrieking piccolo) was unerringly placed on behalf of the composer and his pulsating codes.
This was a compelling, often-thrilling performance; good news that Sir Colin is conducting all six Nielsen symphonies over this and the next two seasons (and recording them for LSO Live). Nielsen could be the new Mahler! We need one!