Sir Colin Davis and LSO Tackle Two Familiar Composers and One Unfamiliar


  Haydn, Nielsen, and Beethoven: Dame Mitsuko Uchida (piano), London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis (conductor). Barbican,London, 4.10.2011 (MB)

Haydn – Symphony no.92 in G major, ‘Oxford’
Nielsen – Symphony no.1 in G minor
Beethoven – Piano Concerto no.3 in C minor, op.37

This is the latest of an LSO series in which Sir Colin Davis and Dame Mitsuko Uchida present Beethoven piano concertos alongside symphonies by Haydn and Nielsen. Haydn must rank alongside Schoenberg and Webern as one of the most scandalously neglected of all the great composers of the past, so almost any opportunity to hear his music is to be grabbed with both hands, especially one involving a master in this repertoire such as Davis. (If you have not heard his Concertgebouw recordings of the twelve London symphonies, you are in for a life-changing experience; if you have, you are still in for another, when you listen again.) As for Nielsen: well, I tried…

The Oxford Symphony opened in the vein in which it would proceed, the first movement’s Adagio introduction pregnant with possibility. (Having come from a weekend of Boulez, the parallels were more than usually evident: in the days when he conducted more works from the ‘museum’, Haydn was a particular favourite, often including rarer symphonies, masses, even opera.) Its chromaticism told without exaggeration, a remark that could be applied with equal justice to every aspect of Davis’s reading. The Allegro spiritoso proved vigorous, straightforward in the best sense, Haydn’s music permitted to speak for itself. (What a change from some of the grotesque mannerisms I have encountered from conductors such as Harnoncourt and Rattle – though the latter’s Mozart tends to be worse still.) Haydn’s thematic rigour was lain bare, or rather truly lived. There was, moreover, a grandeur, despite the relatively small orchestra (ten first violins down to four double basses) that another age would have recognised as Handelian. The slow movement flowed nicely, with a central section whose muscular vigour – trumpets, drums, and all – looked forward to those ‘military’ interventions in later works, both symphonic and sacred. Haydn’s contrapuntal mastery was beautifully apparent too, likewise the woodwind magic of the transformed ‘A’ section. The minuet received a model performance: perfectly in command of rhythmic and harmonic motion, whilst the trio’s wrong-footed – or wrong-footing? – rusticity proved all the more amusing for the lack of underlining. Playing it straight is always the better option here, however tempting others may be. The finale was superbly articulated, sunny of disposition, and above all great fun, that fun enhanced by Haydn’s – and the players’ – display of ‘learned’ counterpoint. If Karl Böhm and Eugen Jochum remain my ultimate favourites in this symphony, I defy anybody to hear superior symphonic Haydn anywhere today.

Nielsen’s First Symphony opened with astonishingly confident sound from a conductor apparently tackling this repertoire for the first time. If Sir Colin conducted Haydn with vigour but also with the wisdom of maturity, here he sounded like a young, if still wise, man. I cannot imagine the LSO has played it that much recently either, yet it sounded quite in its element. As rhythmically alert as the Haydn performance, the first movement also benefited from ravishing woodwind and resplendent brass. This is not music I find especially interesting, but as strong a case as I can imagine was made. Alas, the following movements, whilst very well performed, seem weaker still as music. The Andante sounds to me akin to a faceless watering down of aspects of Schumann and Dvořák, though Davis and the LSO gave a performance of such burning conviction that I could almost overlook its meandering. If that movement meanders, it does so pleasantly enough, but the scherzo, its debt to Dvořák still more glaring, really seems over-extended, not least on account of the lack of a melodic gift. I wondered whether Davis might have run through the trio a little faster, but that is doubtless not a reaction a Nielsen-devotee would have experienced. The finale emerged in performance with fire and as much direction as could be expected, but its C major conclusion sounded, as I think it must, bizarrely unmotivated: no fault of the performers, though.

Thank goodness, I thought, for the return to great music, in the guise of  Beethoven’s C minor concerto. I was a little surprised that the size of the string section reverted to that employed for the Haydn symphony; I am sure Davisemployed a good few more when he performed this same work with Yevgeny Kissin in 2007. In truth, this was a more Mozartian performance than that of four years ago: perhaps a matter of Davis’s skill as an ‘accompanist’, bringing out the best in his soloist. For Uchida, especially in the first movement, seemed utterly at home with Beethoven’s lyricism, but sometimes a little less so with the composer’s sterner moments, her first entry displaying an unexpected hardening of tone. However, by the time of the long cadenza, magnificently prepared by an orchestra sounding rich beyond its numbers, the soloist seemed fully at ease with all facets of Beethoven’s musical persona: whilst we did not hear, and should hardly have expected to hear, the full throttle of a Daniel Barenboim, there was muscle as well as delicacy, and how Uchida turned the composer’s more lyrical phrases throughout! The slow movement was beautifully poised, again clearly Mozartian in its derivation, yet suffused with a Beethovenian sensibility that peered some way into the world of the Romantic concerto. Firm control of line from conductor and soloist ensured that we heard the Largo as if in a single breath. The finale was equally impressive. From Uchida’s opening statement, one noticed her intelligent shaping of the rondo theme, especially the way she leaned into the A-flat (the second note). Unsurprisingly, Davis proved lovingly alert to the Mozartian tendencies of the Harmoniemusik episode, whilst Uchida played her part here as a true chamber musician.

Mark Berry




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