LSO/Colin Davis – Schubert & Bruckner (1)

Symphony No.5 in B flat, D485
Symphony No.7 in E [Leopold Nowak edition; middle movements transposed by Colin Davis]

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 23 May, 2008
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Colin Davis. Photograph: Hiroyuki ItoIn the first of a pair of concerts conducted by Colin Davis featuring symphonies by Schubert and Bruckner (Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ and Bruckner 6 are booked for 1 June), Sir Colin opened with a genial and lilting account of Schubert’s modestly-scored Fifth Symphony in which the ‘long line’ and beauty of sound were paramount but with muscle and shadows not eschewed. The second movement Andante con moto was especially fine, spacious but not dawdling, tender but avoiding preciousness – akin to an epistle from the Elysian Fields – Davis digging dip into the music’s soulful resource, shaping and shading it to rapt effect. In a word: sublime.

For at least 20 years, Colin Davis has been conducting Bruckner 7 with the middle movements reversed. He once gave his reasons for doing so (on BBC Radio 3 and also to the present writer) as re-dressing the balance of the symphony. Davis justified his decision by citing that Bruckner himself placed the scherzo second in both his Eighth and Ninth symphonies. Davis’s transposition, then, is with the benefit of hindsight (although he could have also summoned the Original Version of Symphony No.2, in its 1872 first concept – although, by the following year, Bruckner had placed the scherzo third).

Colin Davis. Photograph: Hiroyuki ItoDavis’s reasoning then is that Bruckner 7 (as conceived by the composer and as edited, either by Haas or Nowak) is questionable in its overall balance – two sizeable movements followed by two relatively shorter ones. Yet, in proportion and in character-relationship, the size and content of the Seventh is not dissimilar to Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ – and Sir Colin is not likely to tinker with that! Of course, Davis never does anything for the sake of it; therefore one can respect his decision while disagreeing with it. However, while the LSO’s programme-book went as far as to identify that Davis was using Leopold Nowak’s edition, and had the movements listed in the order that the conductor continues to prefer, there was no mention that to have the scherzo second followed by the Adagio has absolutely nothing to do with Bruckner (or any of his editors) – this was sloppy and misleading presentation.

Ironically, the performance that Davis conducted would have suited perfectly Bruckner’s intended design! In comparison with a recorded-live performance of this work that Davis gave in the Gasteig, Munich on 1 May 1987 (Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Orfeo C208891A, scherzo second), Davis currently sees Bruckner 7 as an archetypal Classical work. In Munich, the movement-timings are 21, 10, 24 and 12 minutes; at this LSO concert, they were 18, 10, 20 and 10. Not that timings can give any real indication as to a performance’s character or take into account the acoustics they were played in.

A Bruckner monument in ViennaNevertheless, Davis’s conducting at this LSO concert was seamless. For once, the opening movement’s tempo-marking of Allegro moderato was taken seriously; the result was (or made to seem) a perfectly paced traversal of a movement that can sprawl and even become the first of two slow movements (such a prospect might have determined Davis’s transposing of the middle movements). Davis led it as a ‘first movement proper’ – and with few or any tempo fluctuations he mirrored Robert Haas’s edition rather than the more interventionist one by Nowak. What was refreshing about Davis’s leadership here was that the symphony was performed as if from the ‘great outdoors’ and with an urbanity that seriously questioned – and rightly so – that Bruckner symphonies have to be religious experiences or – cliché time – a ‘cathedral of sound’.

What did distract, though, was the lack of really quiet playing (essential in Bruckner) and having fortissimos and above blighted by too-loud, often crude-sounding brass. With four each of trumpets and trombones (Bruckner requested three of each and brass instruments of his day didn’t have the volume of their modern counterparts!), such an excess of sound is the only possible outcome. There is of course the ‘bumper’ issue, but, at times, all eight players were blasting away – and the effect was sometimes horrid! This was the imbalance that Davis should have attended to – for otherwise his conducting was unaffected (regarding tempos and transitions). But, further woe, this was a treble-orientated account, sometimes and surprisingly lacking finesse. Antiphonal violins (which Davis does use – and in Bruckner, too) would have helped spread the upper frequencies around and also released the bass ones had the lower instruments, such as cellos and double basses, been facing outwards rather than across the platform.

So, following the all-of-a-piece first movement, came the scherzo – here forceful and with an unsentimental trio. Then the Adagio, given without labour but not lacking gravitas – the blissful moderato section perfect in shape and penitent in expression – that worked its way to a functional rather than an inspirational climax, brass blaring (the irksome cymbal clash and triangle – probably added by Arthur Nikisch, the symphony’s first conductor, and correctly omitted by Haas – virtually inaudible). The finale was notable for its swiftness (too brisk in fact) and oneness and for Davis identifying its delightful Haydnesque qualities, the strings’ interplay a highlight, with the closing apotheosis very much a summation rather than an add-on. But the journey had been somewhat rocky and not-always convincing – for, ultimately, Davis was actually at-one with Bruckner’s design but was defeated by unnecessarily moving the furniture.

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