Sir Colin Davis Conducts A Monster Orchestra!

Béatrice et Bénédict – Overture
Romeo and Juliet – Fantasy Overture
Symphony No.1 in A flat, Op.55

Combined Orchestras of Guildhall School & Royal Academy of Music
Sir Colin Davis

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 15 October, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Monster’ is the only dictionary adjective adequate to describe the coalescence of the orchestras of the Guildhall School and the Royal Academy of Music – no less than 113 players were listed in the programme for this concert, a repeat of one given two nights earlier in The Maltings in Snape.

Over the last two years the two organisations have collaborated on a series of smaller events and it was entirely appropriate that this conjunction – or should it be called a liaison – should have been presided over by Sir Colin Davis who has worked regularly with both. The programme – including Berlioz and Elgar – was quintessential Davis, almost a repeat of one I heard him give with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Edinburgh Festival in August 1964, which he told me was the first time he conducted the symphony.

On that far distant occasion the Berlioz overture was King Lear, which might have been thought a more suitable choice for a very large band rather than the glittering razor-sharp repartee of Beatrice and Benedict, Berlioz’s comic-opera based on Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” with its notoriously difficult opening. However, there were real compensations in the voluptuous sound of the 38 violins in the sustained string cantilena near the opening and their sheer panache in the main allegro. Special praise to the mellow horn quartet at the beginning whose depth of tone and security would have done credit to any orchestra and also to the sensitive solo woodwinds, especially the first flute of Fiona Paterson.

Even better was to come with more ‘Shakespeare in music’, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet in which the precision of the clarinet and bassoon choir and the quiet weight of string tone at the very opening were wholly remarkable – how often does one hear a total of 26 cellos and double basses playing so softly? This was quite simply one of the best performances of the piece one could hope to hear and the evening’s musical highlight. There was a sustained magic about the quieter sections and the integration of tempos was perfectly judged throughout, Davis hitting exactly the tempo giusto for the ‘fight’ music (driving forward but just reined in enough to allow for precision) and with the ‘love music’ expanding gloriously above the stave; and Francesca Moore-Bridger delivered the all-important first horn part with finesse and an Alan Civil-like depth of tone; she is surely a star in the making.

About the Elgar there have to be a few – but not many – reservations. In his preface to the score Elgar writes that “the strings should be as numerous as possible, and it is desirable that the Wood-Wind (sic) and Horns should be doubled”. On this occasion, with 80 strings on stage and the addition of two further horns, the composer’s intentions in this respect were fully realised (seldom can the double basses sustained ppp A flat at the first movement’s close have sounded so potent) and Sir Colin is the most instinctively sympathetic of Elgarians.

Why the slight reservations? Primarily because there was much that was simply too loud. It was wonderful to hear music-making of this sheer warmth, passion and commitment, but, all-too-often confidences, which are best spoken in a half-tone – for instance, the slow movement’s very opening or the whimsical trio – were just too insistent, the moments of stillness or fantasy underplayed. By the time we reached that electrifying coda – definitely trailing clouds of glory in this performance – one had the sense that it would have been even more conclusive had there previously been a greater element of restraint.

This was a performance though which would have raised the roof at the Royal Albert Hall, and, indeed, one hopes that the Proms planners will make room for this new combination – which in its power and panache was vastly preferable to some of the scrappy offerings served up during the Proms season just ended.

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