LSO – Sir Colin Davis’s 85th-Birthday Concert

Symphony No.35 in D, K385 (Haffner)
Four Last Songs
Symphony No.3

Sally Matthews (soprano)

London Symphony Orchestra
Gordan Nikolitch (violin & director) [Mozart]
Martyn Brabbins

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 27 September, 2012
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

It was like being at a birthday party without the cake, candles and balloons. Sadly, we were without the man we were celebrating, for the not-well Sir Colin Davis was unable to conduct as planned or be present at his 85th-birthday concert. Furthermore, Mitsuko Uchida was also indisposed. Her absence took Radu Lupu out of the equation and with it music by Schubert (Rondo in A for piano duet, D951) and Mozart (Concerto in E flat for two pianos, K365). So, in came Mozart’s ‘Haffner’ Symphony, directed by LSO Leader Gordan Nikolitch, and the two pianists became soprano Sally Matthews in Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs. The Elgar/Payne Symphony No.3 remained the lone original fixture, Martyn Brabbins now doing the honours.

Gordan NikolitchGordan Nikolitch, although not often seen these days leading the LSO, struck up a close rapport with Sir Colin over numerous seasons, and was a superb soloist with him in an electrifying account of Brahms’s Violin Concerto in February 2005, so it was no surprise to see him officiating on this occasion. From the Leader’s position, he directed a performance of the ‘Haffner’ that was fleet and fiery in the outer movements, trumpets and apposite hard-stick timpani to the fore, but rather solemn in the second-movement Andante, a trudge slow enough for sticky phrasing and to lose the movement its serenade character. The Minuet, strongly accented, was robust, the Trio a well-rounded liquid-centre. Whether wholly Nikolitch’s interpretation or something more democratic, the playing throughout was impressively unanimous, both in ensemble and dynamic shading.

During the Mozart, the sight of a platform without either a podium or a conductor was rather poignant, so too a message from Sir Colin shared with us by Kathryn McDowell (LSO MD) at the start of the evening, a précis of which would be ‘So sorry not to be there and thank-you for the kind messages’. One wondered whether Lupu could (should) have stayed on to offer a ‘solo’ Mozart piano concerto and whether Four Last Songs was an appropriate replacement for the rather festive K365; a selection of Mozart opera arias might have been more apt if maybe not practical at short notice. Put simply, the combination of Richard Strauss’s final music and the symphony that Elgar left in sketches made for one too many ‘endgames’; and Colin Davis’s absence could only but add another sombre layer.

Sally Matthews. Photograph: www.maxinerobertson.comWhich should take nothing away from Sally Matthews’s contribution, for all that she was sometimes edgy of timbre and not free-soaring enough, but, after initial heaviness, warmed to her task with feeling and open-heartedness, Brabbins securing an explicit accompaniment from Strauss’s always-surprising large orchestra (including celesta, harp and tuba) for music so confidential and intimate, at times too closely observed for the (antiphonal) violins, which were somewhat intonationally tested in ‘September’, during which Timothy Jones offered a particularly poetic horn solo. In ‘Beim Schlafengehen’ Nikolitch’s contribution was chaste, gently ‘from within’. Overall, this ‘dry-eye’ account avoided mawkishness, to advantage, the final setting (‘Im Abendrot’) serene and accepting and cueing meaningful silence as the only possible response to this final sunset.

The programme-book included numerous photos of Colin Davis through his decades, a Davis/LSO timeline (beginning with his LSO debut in 1959) and some handsome tributes, including from our ‘missing’ pianists, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Michael Tilson Thomas, Ian Bostridge, Antonio Pappano, Nikolai Znaider and André Previn, and also the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Staatskapelle Dresden.

During the interval, your correspondent admits to feeling anything but celebratory, strangely perplexed in fact, and ‘Elgar 3’ wasn’t about to lighten the mood, but at least this was the music that was expected, Colin Davis’s choice. From 1932 to 1998, through the good offices of Anthony Payne (present in the audience), the symphony that Elgar seemingly had neither the energy nor the inclination to complete, to a BBC commission, here emerged as wonderfully special, confirming just how far Payne was able to penetrate into Elgar’s psyche and arrange the sketches into an admirable whole as well as compose new music, roughly 50/50. There is too much exceptional music to have ethical doubts about it (ditto Deryck Cooke’s performing version of Mahler 10 and Friedrich Cerha’s completion of Berg’s Lulu).

Martyn Brabbins. Photograph: Sasha GusovBrabbins – no stranger to ‘Elgar 3’ (he conducted it at the BBC Proms in 2004 and, one imagines, since) – shaped an exceptional performance, totally convincing, and magnificently played. What we hear at the beginning, a sort of gnarled post-Empire pomp, is all Elgar’s work (and no doubt a huge pointer for Payne), was given with tense majesty to be tenderly answered by the wondrously affecting second subject, an emotional power sustained through the exposition repeat. Brabbins’s success was his flexible handling of each idea and episode but without losing overall integrity. Brabbins’s expressive and lucid conducting embraced every aspect of this work; its vacillation between private and public, between defiance and etherealness, taking us to another place, sometimes dark and strange, many enigmas presented.

If the intermezzo-like second movement suggests woodland scenes it is also not without secrets. The succeeding Adagio is truly troubled, quite chilling, somewhere maybe Elgar did not want to be; Payne seems to have really appreciated this and uncompromisingly corroborated with Elgar on his bleak vision; for all that, the LSO’s strings found reserves of lustre and richness and Edward Vanderspar’s viola contributed eloquently. Grand the finale can be, a striding and proud processional – again Brabbins ensured a gripping elasticity and, now, a heavenwards aspiration that summons Bruckner – but one senses a falsification, that there really is no way out. If Elgar offered no clue as to how the work would end, Payne’s diminution of means and gradual fade-out to a (fateful?) gong stroke here seemed the only possibility. Unnerving.

Don’t get me wrong, for as performances of anything go, Martyn Brabbins and the LSO here served up something truly great, an altogether special and epic ‘Elgar 3’ (just short of an hour) that found the original composer on the brink, maybe beyond it, and his latter-day representative on Earth quite inspired in his elaboration and completion. Deeply compelling and moving, rapture connected all those in the Hall (save those who returned their tickets or didn’t come back after the interval!), a mix of being disturbed and exhilarated. It should have been recorded. Damn! As that gong stroke faded to nothingness, and further silence, one’s thoughts turned again to Colin Davis…

As a postscript to the above review, there follows the tribute that was published on Classical Source at the time of Sir Colin Davis’s 85th-birthday.

“Today, Tuesday 25 September 2012, is Sir Colin Davis’s 85th-birthday.

Firstly, however, for all that Sir Colin remains active, with many dates in the diary, ill-health has alas thwarted his plans to conduct the Birthday Concert this Thursday, 27 September, with the LSO at the Barbican Hall. Not only that, Mitsuko Uchida is also unwell.

Sir Colin Davis. Photograph: Alberto Venzago / LSOThe disappointment of Sir Colin’s current indisposition does not of course detract from his many and varied achievements – with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Orchestra and London Symphony Orchestra, and at the Royal Opera House. He has also enjoyed long and fruitful associations with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic and Staatskapelle Dresden. He has made hundreds of recordings of operatic, symphonic and concerto repertoire.

Sir Colin DavisWe rightly think of Sir Colin as a magisterial conductor of Beethoven, Berlioz, Elgar, Haydn, Mozart, Sibelius and Tippett – all lifelong composer passions for him – but that is also to typecast him and overlook his wider musical sympathies.

As a man and a musician, Sir Colin Davis attracts admiration and affection in equal measure. There have been notable pedagogical associations, too, such as with the Guildhall School of Music and the Royal Academy of Music. Subsequent generations of singers, conductors and instrumentalists have benefited from Sir Colin’s advice, enthusiasm, experience and wisdom.

On this day, Classical Source has pleasure in sending Sir Colin Davis ‘many happy returns’ as well as much gratitude for his honest, insightful, principled and vibrant music-making which has been such an inspiration over six decades. We also wish him better and a speedy return to the podium.” (Colin Anderson)

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