Lupu, LSO/Davis – 10 December

Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.54
Vaughan Williams
The Lark Ascending
Symphony No.5 in E flat, Op.82

Radu Lupu (piano)

Hilary Hahn (violin)

Suzanne Bertish (narrator)

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 10 December, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

On the face of it a rather odd programme with three very disparate works and two soloists – which nonetheless worked surprisingly well. At least there was a surreptitious logic in the combination of Vaughan Williams’s Lark Ascending and Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony, Vaughan Williams being an ardent admirer of Sibelius to whom he dedicated his own 5th “without permission”.

Radu Lupu’s Schumann concerto, occupying the first half, has to be the ultimate antidote to all those barnstorming performances to which we have long become accustomed, treating the concerto almost as a chamber piece and the piano as an obbligato instrument. For the most part it was quite remarkably restrained. The dynamic levels of both soloist and orchestra were generally a couple of notches below normal, as if we were revisiting the music in a dream. Lupu’s extreme delicacy allowed us to savour much left-hand detail and also to hear orchestral parts frequently obscured in more forceful performances. Particularly effective were the Andante espressivo at the heart of the first movement and the cello tune in the middle of the Intermezzo, lovingly shaped by Davis. It would be idle though to pretend that Lupu’s playing is as technically secure as it once was – but that would be to miss the point given Lupu’s wholly personal communion with this concerto.

With The Lark Ascending – prefaced by an over-theatrical reading of George Meredith’s poem from Suzanne Bertish – there was rapt communion of a very different sort. I was less than complimentary about Hilary Hahn’s Elgar concerto a couple of months ago. The Lark Ascending, however, received a remarkably concentrated and atmospheric performance from both soloist and orchestra, “the violin (soaring) in a timeless melisma finally lost in the shimmering haze of a summer’s day” to quote the programme note. Hahn’s technical security is a huge plus in this music but perhaps the best compliment one can pay is to report that she took music which can too often sound like pastoral meandering and treated it as the great piece it really is, giving it both backbone and extreme sensitivity.

The rendition of Sibelius’s 5th was as fine as one could wish to hear, the LSO on peak form. 2003 has been a vintage year for Sibelius symphonies in London with superb performances from Davis, Berglund and Vänskå. Davis’s Sibelius is direct, volatile and urgent. Particularly striking was the sheer security and quality of the orchestral response in all departments – even third and fourth horns were resplendent at the very outset – and on this form the LSO has few equals.

Davis was particularly convincing in building a controlled momentum through the two parts of the opening movement, constantly driving the music forward, creating the illusion of it spinning almost out of control and culminating in a quite shattering account of final bars. The second and third movements Davis sees as linked – this is surely right since the second movement contains premonitions of things to come in the finale.

One minor quibble about the closing peroration. After so much that had been outstanding, it seemed that slightly insufficient weight of tone was left in reserve to comprehensively clinch the argument as the final sledgehammer chords were reached. That said, this was riches indeed and it is likely to be a long time before London hears another performance radiating this level of conviction.

  • Concert repeated on 11 December at 7.30
  • LSO

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