The Emperor’s New Clothes: Colin Davis’ Nielsen-Beethoven Cycle

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Haydn, Nielsen, Beethoven: Mitsuko Uchida (piano), London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis (conductor) with Lucy Hall (soprano) and Marcus Farnsworth (baritone), Barbican Hall, London, 11.12.2011 (CC)

Haydn Symphony No. 93
Nielsen Symphony No. 3 (“Sinfonia espansiva”)
Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 5, “Emperor”

The combination of Haydn, Nielsen and Beethoven favoured in the current series of concerts is a winning and intriguing one, even if it can lead to some long evenings (the concert under discussion finished around 21:50). The stamina required poses few problems to an orchestra of the LSO’s calibre; it was good, also, to see the ‘Emperor” showcased in the second part of the programme. Perhaps, also, it is this work that should be considered first in the present review as it certainly provided the most food for thought.

Right from the first it was clear this was no run of the mill “Emperor”: the orchestral chord more blossomed into life than grabbed us by the lapels; Uchida’s responses were determined, verging on the relentless (certainly not descriptions one immediately associates with this artist). Throughout, whether declamatory or heart-meltingly delicate, Uchida played with the most awe-inspiring clarity. Davis’ accompaniment, though, was not really a match for his soloist. Try the fortissimo dotted rhythm exchange between soloist and orchestra before the return of the first great chords. Uchida was mesmerising, ferocious; Davis leaden.

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L.v.Beethoven, The Five Piano Concertos,
K.Sanderling / M.Uchida / BRSO

The slow movement was gorgeously rendered by Uchida (perhaps, here, predictably so, but no less wonderful for that) and at a tempo that was clearly Adagio but still moved. Uchida’s perfect cantabile allowed the piano truly to sing. A pity the magical transition to the finale was marred by, firstly, a less than magical descent from the bassoon to the horn sustained octaves, and then by the second horn running out of breath (or the note simply disappearing and the player giving up). Still, there was a freshness to Uchida’s playing that, as in the first movement, led to the feeling that she was discovering the score for the first time. The finale found the orchestra, at last, on blazing form. A bumpy corner just before the exposed timpani of the movement’s final stages was not enough to detract from a fascinating performance. Uchida’s technique is amazing (perfect octave trills), but her musical intelligence and her astonishing sensitivity is what really counts.

The 70-minute first half pitted the first of Haydn’s “London” symphonies against Nielsen’s fascinating “Sinfonia espansiva”. Davis’ mix of modern instruments with hard-sticked timpani works well, as does his ease with the music. He ensured a sense of flow to the first movement proper (Allegro assai). The solo strings delighted in the Largo cantabile, while the playful finale was utterly charming (some lovely oboe playing from Juan Pechuan Ramirez).

Nielsen’s compact Third Symphony (1910/11) includes two wordless vocal soloists, here two young singers Lucy Hall (currently a scholar on the Opera Course at the Guildhall School) and Marcus Farnsworth, winner of the 2009 Wigmore Hall International Song Competition. They are called for the second movement, an Andante pastorale. Farnsworth’s pleasing, open sound was a delight; Lucy Hall has a pleasing sound when you could hear it but, from the stalls, one had to strain rather. The overall impression of the performance confirmed that this is to be a major Nielsen series. Davis was clearly in no mood to linger. The first movement was bracing in the extreme and included along the way moments of virtuosity that surely the LSO alone among UK orchestras could achieve (a perfectly graded pizzicato violin diminuendo springs to mind – fans of the Philharmonia may wish to differ). The finale brought an almost Elgarian nobility to Nielsen’s long melodic lines.

A fascinating evening (as if one expects anything less from the LSO these days).

Colin Clarke