LSO Concert – 13th December

Piano Concerto No.1 in C
Symphony No.3

Radu Lupu (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Colin Davis

Reviewed by: David Wordsworth

Reviewed: 13 December, 2001
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Perhaps late-night Christmas shopping got the better of the audience for the first of these two performances – it is some time since I have seen such a meagre turnout for the LSO. This was unfortunate considering Radu Lupu’s increasingly rare appearances in this country and because it was quite simply one of the most captivating performances of a Beethoven concerto I have heard for some time.

Alternately civilised and subtle, poetic and witty, Lupu, sitting bolt-upright on a straight-backed chair, brought an air of the unexpected to this marvellous piece that made one forget the run-of-the-mill performances that are so often trotted out by straight-off-a-plane virtuosos. The slow movement was still, beautifully controlled and brought some fine solo playing from the LSO’s winds. Lupu is a pianist that makes audiences listen – no histrionics to watch, only the occasional stroke of his ample beard. His crystal-clear runs and sense of fun in the finale inspired the LSO and Sir Colin to chamber music-like delicacy. In short – a delight.

Civilised and subtle are not the words that immediately come to mind when considering the performance of Elgar’s ’Symphony No.3’ – Elgar’s sketches as elaborated by Anthony Payne (pictured right). Much as it grieves me to say it, the more I hear this piece, whilst still of course admiring Payne’s overall conception and compositional tour de force, the less convinced I become. The best of the music, as ’completed’ by Elgar, seems to me to come at the very beginning (the great striding fifths and octaves are quite unlike anything else in Elgar – a hugely arresting opening) and in the slow movement with its entirely characteristic air of personal nostalgia. The finale though is curiously unsatisfying; as for the second movement, the tambourine solo might have been indicated by Elgar, but for this listener at least it is too much of a not very good thing, and all too audible in this performance!

Sir Colin Davis has done great things for and with the LSO – but his conducting seems to be more and more verging on the hectoring (if one can use such a phrase!). Though there were many things to admire about the performance of Elgar’s First Symphony, which opened this season, I felt both the Secondand Third were somewhat battered into submission. It is one thing for a performance to have drive and enthusiasm but – perhaps this has to do with the Barbican Hall’s undeniably improved acoustic – but someone, ideally the conductor, should really do something about the brass playing which constantly overpowers the rest of the orchestra. The trumpets and trombones especially seem to have a dynamic range that roughly goes from loud to louder. They seem totally oblivious to whatever is going onaround them; it’s just a very unpleasant sound. The percussion (that tambourine!) could have done with some restraining too.

All that said, there were quieter and intimate moments, not least the rapt slow movement, again some beautiful wind solos (particularly in the striking second subject of the second movement) and the warm sound of the LSO strings made for welcome respite in the ’Adagio’.

  • LSO Live – Elgar’s ’three’ symphonies with Colin Davis early next year on budget-price CD
  • Previous issues to be reviewed by very shortly

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