Sir Colin and LSO Tackle Nielsen’s Eccentricities, Uchida Highlights Beethoven’s Subtlety

Haydn, Beethoven, Nielsen: Mitsuko Uchida (piano), London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 26.5.11 (GDn)

Haydn: Symphony No.99 “The Cat”
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.2
Nielsen: Symphony No.6

Colin Davis has been conducting Haydn symphonies since long before anybody was taking the idea the idea of period performance seriously. Those (paradoxically) new ideas about how to perform the music stand in opposition to a long and vibrant tradition, which retains all its vitality under Davis’ baton. He doesn’t intervene too much in the flow of the music, his role is more to energise and inspire. And even though the string section is relatively large, the results are impressively nimble. Ensemble and tuning were occasional problems, especially in the strings. When Davis spurs them on to loud dynamics that are out of their comfort zone, both the tone and the coordination can suffer.

When it comes to working with soloists, there are distinct advantages to working with the very best. The ensemble problems in the strings continued into the opening tutti of the Beethoven concerto, but when Mitsuko Uchida entered everything changed. From then on the orchestra was note perfect, and the perfection continued after her departure to elevate the Nielsen performance considerably above the Haydn. Do we have Uchida to thank? Who knows, but her performance was certainly inspiring. I hadn’t heard her perform much Beethoven before, and I had wondered if she would have the necessary weight for his strident textures. But Uchida has a knack of setting the agenda on her own terms. As soon as she began, it became clear that I had been asking all the wrong questions. Instead, the issue became whether Beethoven has the required subtly and sophistication for an Uchida performance. He does, of course, and her performance was as convincing as any. She makes impressive musical capital out of questioning Beethoven’s certainties. In the first movement in particular, many of the piano phrases seem to be written as dogmatic statements. But Uchida presents them more as suggestions, as if to say “Is this what the piano should be doing here?” And of course it is, but as a listener you feel that your views have been taken on board, or at least your presence has been acknowledged. Her performance wasn’t note-perfect by any means, there were a good deal of wrong notes, and she got seriously lost a few bars into the first movement cadenza. But none of that detracted from this incredible performance.

Even by Nielsen’s own standards, his Sixth Symphony is an eccentric work. There is nothing you can take for granted here, with the form, the orchestration and the harmony continually taking unpredictable turns into the unknown. There is enough great writing, especially in the first movement to compensate for its many wanton eccentricities. Most of those eccentricities come in the inner movements, and the second in particular gives the uneasy impression that it is all a big joke at the listener’s expense. Full credit though to Colin Davis for tackling this and Nielsen’s other symphonies so late in his career. They all require clear and focussed musical direction, and they certainly get it. This Sixth in particular is a work that presents huge challenges to everybody on the podium and particularly the conductor. The players had obviously done their homework too, because the orchestral playing here was ideal – precise, coordinated and focussed, and without any trace of pedantry, nor, I should add, of resentment at the bizarre challenges to which they were being put, often for only obscure musical gains.

No doubt a recording of this performance of the Sixth Symphony will find its way onto the LSO Live label, and given the quality of the playing it could well turn out to be as good as any on the market. The concert is being repeated on 2 June (with Uchida playing Beethoven’s First Concerto). That concert will be broadcast live on Radio 3. Do tune in, but don’t worry if you’re not in time to catch the Haydn.

Gavin Dixon