LSO/Colin Davis

Symphony No.8 in B minor (Unfinished)
Symphony No.8 in F, Op.93
The Firebird [Original 1910 Version]

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 3 December, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Almost two concerts. The first juxtaposing the visionary journey of Schubert’s unfinished if strangely complete two-movement symphony with Beethoven’s compact four-movement, rather nostalgic work. Stravinsky’s Firebird, epic in Sir Colin’s hands, stood alone, stunning in its invention.

There was a touch of déjà vu about this concert. Sir Colin and the LSO played the Beethoven last December and Firebird as recently as May, when it proved a highlight. Musical lightning struck twice! This Firebird, three minutes quicker than the time-taken 50 minutes of the previous (deeply absorbing) rendition, was cut from similar cloth if tailored differently. The latest one seemed less intent on ’orchestral theatre’ and was more volatile, spectral and fantastical. Sir Colin likes to delve into the darker side of Firebird while being no stranger to the rapid-fire aspect of the quicker numbers. This deftly played account, with colours, blends and balances often things of wonder, like its predecessor, really was rather special, a word that applies to David Pyatt’s horn playing, however invidious it may be to pick out just one soloist from a stellar cast.

The Schubert, flowing and quite pastoral at times, suggested a calm exterior, save that the development of the first movement (after a twice-through exposition) caught the work’s interior blackness, and the succeeding Andante was a thing of fragility and withdrawal, Davis making much of dynamic contrasts – ethereal pianissimos, with a full string band, really caught the air.

From Schubert’s lonely forest walk to Beethoven’s urbane trip through Viennese streets and coffee-houses (or so it seemed) is a rather remarkable change of fortune. This was a wonderful performance – spacious, witty, healthy and invigorating … intense, trenchant, graceful, generous. A perfectly straight rendering of the first movement’s final bar said it all really; unlike most of his colleagues, Sir Colin knows that the merest suggestion of a rallentando here undermines Beethoven’s humour. A joyous traversal, then, that beguiled the ear, and made the strongest possible case for ’unfashionable’ Beethoven performance. As ever, Sir Colin took an individual view, non-metronomic, unpredictable, fresh, spontaneous, meticulous, a smile here, a dance there. All power to him!

Whoever the unnamed timpanist was should be signed-up immediately. The LSO’s been working its way through quite a number of players recently to fill its vacant position. This chap certainly made himself heard – he was also very precise in impact and sound, a totally musical response to what was happening around him.

This was a corker of a concert.

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