Sir Colin Davis Conducts a Combined Beethoven 9

Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125 (Choral)

Claire Rutter (soprano)
Anne Mason (mezzo-soprano)
Philip Langridge (tenor)
Alan Opie (bass)

Combined Chorus of the Royal Academy of Music, Guildhall School of Music & Drama and King’s College, London

Combined Orchestra of the Royal Academy of Music and the Guildhall School of Music & Drama
Sir Colin Davis

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 20 March, 2009
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Sir Colin DavisHard on the heels of a Beethoven Ninth from the departing Daniele Gatti, not to mention Neeme Järvi’s run-through of the score as edited by Gustav Mahler, this was a gala performance of the old school. The size of the orchestra, comprising many of the best young musicians currently studying in London, guaranteed a certain kind of string-led gravitas (12 cellos, 10 double basses, 32 violins lumped together) while the proclivities of the conductor favoured mellifluousness and ease.

What advance publicity there was made much of Sir Colin Davis’s burning passion for music – in his 82nd year, he continues to work with conducting-students at both the Guildhall School and the Royal Academy of Music – but this was not the fieriest of readings. Nor was the mammoth orchestra quite the sum of its parts. The wind-playing could be rough around the edges. Whereas the Chorus proved capable of fine bold tone and clear enunciation even in the most stratospheric writing, belying its disparate origins.

It might be thought strange that in this of all works, Davis should eschew the kind of point-scoring and italicisation with which he peppers his Sibelius and Elgar, but perhaps he feels it to be out of place. The first movement was certainly viewed as a (suitably implacable) whole without abrupt changes of mood and dynamic. Ever here though I missed the sort of cut and thrust that could inspire a feminist critique of Beethoven’s developmental processes as akin to sexual violation. The scherzo, minus the second repeat that Sir Colin has included on other occasions, gave the woodwind a chance to recover lost ground.

After the soloists had entered to take their places, the slow movement began less deliberately than expected (Leonard Bernstein would have considered the tempo fast) but with some careful shaping of string lines plus podium sing-along. Again however contrasts between sections were minimised and the Andante moderato section lacked a character of its own. I was reminded of Vaughan Williams’s strictures: he regarded the violin’s semiquaver meandering as mere mechanical decorations typical of the era. In this performance one could understand what he meant.

The finale was shorn of the usual rhetorical pauses and emphases that made it seem a little bland. The soloists, all with Guildhall or Royal Academy connections, could muster little beauty of tone, the soprano apart, but appeared to enjoy themselves, not least that incorrigible veteran Philip Langridge, still a great singing-actor if no longer a great singer.

All in all a slightly disappointing evening but the audience left happy, apparently unfazed by a strange smell in the hall – the stew Beethoven threw?

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