Sir Colin Davis’s 85th Birthday Celebrated in His Absence

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Strauss, and Elgar: Concert in Honour of Sir Colin Davis’s 85th birthday Sally Matthews (soprano), London Symphony Orchestra, Gordan Nikolitch (director), Martyn Brabbins (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 27.9.2012 (MB)

Mozart : Symphony no.35 in D major, ‘Haffner’, KV 385
Strauss:  Four Last Songs
Elgar:  Symphony no.3 in C minor, elaborated by Anthony Payne

It would have been difficult not to have felt some disappointment at this, which had been intended as Sir Colin Davis’s eighty-fifth birthday concert, the actual birthday having taken place two days previously. Both Sir Colin and one of the anticipated piano soloists, Dame Mitsuko Uchida, fell ill, and Radu Lupu also withdrew. The advertised Schubert Rondo in A major for piano duet, D 951, and Mozart Concerto for Two Pianos disappeared, to be replaced by a conductorless Haffner Symphony and a performance of the Four Last Songs by a soprano whose previous account of the work with the LSO had, to put it diplomatically, offered a somewhat mixed experience.

The show must go on nevertheless, and this remained a concert in Sir Colin’s honour, with birthday greetings in the programme booklet from friends, colleagues, ambassadors. André Previn suggested that the two of them should check in with each other when they were 100. Anne-Sophie Mutter described him as ‘one of the half handful of my most admired musicians’: quite a claim, the more one thinks about it. Nikolaj Znaider waxed most lyrical of all: ‘Once in a while we may … encounter a being of such force that it seems to completely alter our own course. Such is the influence of Sir Colin Davis on me. … Sir Colin’s wisdom, humility, sincerity and above all his friendship and camaraderie shall be my northern star.’

The Haffner Symphony, though not initially programmed, is of course a work many of us would give a great deal to hear Sir Colin conduct. How would the LSO fare in his absence, directed by leader, Gordan Nikolitch? The first movement was on the fast side, with kettledrums (hard sticks, alas) far more prominent, almost militaristically so, than would have been the case in one’s imaginary Davis performance (or indeed in his wonderful Dresden recording). At times, Mozart felt harried, lacking the flexibility that a great conductor would have imparted. The counterpoint was clear, though, and structure was delineated with equal clarity. What was missing? Above all: that smile which Messiaen wisely identified as characteristic of Mozart’s music. Related to that, what the performance failed to do was to yield. The Andante came as a pleasant surprise, taken at a sensible tempo, quite ignoring fashionable trends to rush through slow movements as quickly and as gracelessly as possible. A little more string warmth would not have gone amiss at times, but there was neither the precosity nor the crudity that characterises those ‘authenticke’ performances which stand as distant from the humanity of Davis’s Mozart as one can imagine. Indeed, the apparent simplicity of the performance had more than a little in common with such Mozart. The minuet was hasty, robbed of its grandeur, rather fierce too; it grimaced rather than smiled, almost after the manner of Nikolaus Harnoncourt. However, the trio relaxed, perhaps in part because the woodwind section was more prominent and less ‘directed’, though the strings were less aggressive here too. It was really rather beautiful, touching even. The brilliant finale, taken attacca, blazed like a Mannheim rocket. Finely etched dramatic contrasts contributed to a performance that for the most part felt spot on. Who needs a conductor then? Well, everyone, if that conductor is good enough. If, however, the conductor is not of the calibre of Sir Colin, one might be better off without.

Sad to say, Sally Matthews showed again that, whatever her strengths may be, Strauss’s Four Last Songs are simply not suited to her voice. Martyn Brabbins opened ‘Frühling’ with a welcome lack of sentimentality, his swifter if somewhat stiff readings rendering Matthews’s shortcomings less glaring than they had been under Davis. This song was perhaps the least successful, her voice forced throughout and certainly neither majestic (Norman) nor creamy (Janowitz). Words, moreover, were quite unintelligible, though oddly Matthews seemed to be making quite an effort with them. ‘September’ was better, though her vibrato was uncomfortably wide. The odd word here and there was discernible. Brabbins seemed more relaxed. Diction improved further in ‘Beim Schlafengehen’, but its final stanza suffered from undue forcing of the voice, Matthews’s tone anything but tender. I have heard warmer glows than that at the opening of ‘Im Abendrot’, but at least it was not sentimentalised. The beauty of the LSO’s flute larks was something to savour. Matthews’s voice was more controlled too. It remained, however, quite a relief that this flawed performance was concluded. I should perhaps add that the woman seated next to me proved quite ecstatic in her reaction, rising to her feet. (Oddly, she did not return for the second half, implying that she had come to the concert, long sold out, solely for the items not originally on the programme.)

Anthony Payne’s ‘elaboration’ of Elgar’s Third Symphony received the best performance of the evening. Brabbins immediately seemed more at home; so in fact did the LSO. The angry opening of the first movement spoke for itself in unexaggerated fashion, the surprisingly modernistic scoring (Elgar’s own, be it noted) contrasting in almost textbook fashion with the tender, lyrical second subject. One could have no doubt that something important was at stake in the battle royal of the development, the LSO brass predictably terrific. The recapitulation was no mere return, but an intensification, weighed down by memory though always clear-eyed. There was a typical sense of loss to the scherzo, which yet emerged with more than a hint of Mendelssohn. Later on, my ears were put a little in mind of Berio’s orchestration of Brahms, revealing a certain infidelity through fidelity. It was no worse for that, of course; indeed, the movement proved all the more intriguing for it. The Adagio solenne was dark yet defiant. If its sometimes tortured post-Wagnerian chromaticism is hardly redolent of Schoenberg, it would not necessarily sound out of place in, say, Zemlinsky. I am not entirely sure that the movement does not in itself – or perhaps did not in performance – lose its way a little in the middle, but that may simply be ascribed to a lack of comprehension on my part. Was the opening of the finale a tad too excitable? Perhaps, but better that than staid. Forward impetus was impressively maintained throughout, though never at the cost of flexibility. The closing mists had shades not only of Strauss’s Alpine Symphony but perhaps even of late Mahler, coincidentally or otherwise. Tellingly, I had long since given up thinking what Davis might have done and was enjoying Brabbins’s performance on its own terms. Payne, whom I could see during that performance, was visibly involved throughout.

That said, let us all hope that Sir Colin will be back at the helm of the LSO as soon as possible.

Mark Berry