Royal Academy of Music SO Concert – 17th October

Overture to Benvenuto Cellini
Concerto in C for piano, violin and cello, Op.56
Symphony No.2 in D

Joanna MacGregor (piano)
Kazuki Sawa (violin)
Colin Carr (cello)

Royal Academy of Music Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Colin Davis

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 17 October, 2001
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Sir Colin Davis has a knack of inspiring young, relatively inexperienced musicians to give their very best; in fact, to go beyond that. It’s more than aiming a few well-chosen observations at the LSO (Davis being its Principal Conductor), it’s about taking the student-players into the music; perhaps this re-kindles Davis’s own enthusiasm for pieces he has conducted with such empathy all his life. He was in electrifying form, leading performances that crackled with excitement.

Indeed, the Berlioz was launched with both feet off the ground. Vivid and charged, Davis’s shaping of Berlioz’s lyrical material and his unlocking of Berlioz’s individual use of the orchestra is without compare. Whether it was the unalloyed warmth of the strings, perky woodwinds or well-blended brass, the placing of detail was exact and pertinent, the thrill of the chase palpable. Not know who was playing and a student band wouldn’t have come to mind that easily, though a conductor devoted to this composer was evident from the off, as this exuberant and tender rendition amply demonstrated. (The programme note informed that Benvenuto Cellini was Berlioz’s first overture. He had, in fact, previously written Waverley, Les francs-juges and King Lear.)

For the record, and to avoid confusion with the programme cover reproduced, this concert was planned as a co-operation between the RAM and the Tokyo Geidai (the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music). You might have guessed … September the Eleventh. The Geidai became another casualty of travelling difficulties, the “turbulent world situation,” to quote the programme insert; the RAM’s playing-strength was augmented by several Japanese students already in London. Between them the three soloists teach at the two conservatories – Mr Sawa did find a plane! – and Sir Colin is also to be found at the RAM.

Joanna MacGregor stole the concerto; her playing was scintillating, and accommodating – and she had her foot firmly on the sustaining pedal (as Beethoven directs) in the closing bars (an effect very few pianists observe) – but neither Sawa or Colin Carr, despite some shapely playing in more intimate moments, could get beyond earnest endeavour. Davis provided a resolute and spirited accompaniment, rather more interesting than most in this unfairly neglected work.

The Sibelius was uplifting. Again, Davis, fresh and spontaneous, took his charges beyond themselves. I must mention the strings en masse. For unanimity, depth of sound and collective feeling, from Leader (Clare Duckworth) to double bass No.8, there was a tonal blend and phrasal concord that was exceptional.

These beautiful-sounding strings came into their own with expressive benedictions amid the tumultuous slow movement and striving finale. Otherwise, Davis, from a gentle opening, opted for lean and muscular Sibelius, screwing the tension up at key moments, underlining the restless and lonely aspects, and building the optimistic coda with unerring regard.

It’s invidious to pick players out, but I must mention Holly Fawcett’s oboe-playing, not least in the symphony’s ’trio’; good to hear an ’English’ sound, one that Tony Camden, Rogers Lord and Winfield, and the recently deceased Sidney Sutcliffe would smile upon. Also, Kate Openshaw’s resourceful use of timpani; not especially forceful but she made every note count. As an example of tomorrow’s musicians this was very encouraging; the ever-young Colin Davis is certainly doing his bit for the future.

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