A Disappointing Substitute for Sir Colin Davis

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Elgar and Mozart:Tim Hugh (cello), Elizabeth Watts (soprano), Daniela Lehner (mezzo-soprano), Maximilian Schmitt (tenor), Andrew Foster-Williams (baritone), London Symphony Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra, Yutaka Sado (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 13.1.2013 (MB)

Elgar:  Cello Concerto in E minor, op.85
Mozart:  Requiem Mass in D minor, KV 626

This concert was the latest to fall victim to Sir Colin Davis’s continued indisposition, though the LSO website tells us that his recovery has him remaining hopeful that he will return to conduct the orchestra in March. Dedication of the concert to the memory of the much-lamented Principal Oboist of the LSO, Kieron Moore, who died in October 2012, was an admirable gesture. (Click here to read a beautiful tribute from Gareth Davies, LSO Principal Flute.)

The combination of Elgar and Mozart was of course an echt-Davis programme. It was difficult not to feel a little sorry for the substitute conductor, Yutaka Sado, for I do not think there is a conductor alive, with the possible exception of Daniel Barenboim, who would be likely to emerge unscathed from comparison with what might have been. That, however, might have worked both ways; prepared for the fact that it was not Sir Colin, I was prepared to be a little indulgent. Alas, Sado’s hapless conducting went from bad to worse. I should have called it Kapellmeister-ish, were that not a grievous libel upon everyone’s local Kapellmeister. The sub-Bernstein podium antics were bad enough, but given that they were not backed up by as much as a small fraction of Bernstein’s musicality, one could only wish that one of Davis’s previous substitutes, for instance Manfred Honeck, had been available.

The Elgar Cello Concerto did not fare too badly, the presence of Tim Hugh as soloist a definite advantage. Hugh opened with tone for which the easiest and, I think, most appropriate, adjectival cliché would be ‘aristocratic’, not nearly so full-blooded as Jacqueline du Pré (a comparison as odious as it is inevitable), perhaps more ‘French’, even Fournier-like, though none of that should be taken to preclude passion. The basic tempo for the first movement was on the slow side, perfectly reasonable, however, for Moderato. A warning bell sounded with Sado’s tendency to conduct bar-by-bar, but as yet there was nothing too grievous to worry about. Yes, he lacked Davis’s fluency; yes, the music sounded less ‘lived with,’; yes, one had the impression that the performance was really being led by the soloist, tempo variations certainly seeming to originate with him; yes, the waving around of arms seemed to be a sub-Bernstein affectation, with no discernible performative result; however, the night was young. And indeed, the beginning of the second movement perked up, with a lively sense of fantasy, the LSO woodwind impressing as so often. Was Sado settling in? Alas, towards the end of this short movement, he began to seem lost again, cello and orchestra threatening to lose touch with one another. The slow movement felt drawn out. I suspect the tempo itself was not unusually slow, but the lack of any sense of life in Sado’s conducting rendered the patient’s condition terminal. That said, Hugh’s solo line was finely shaped, despite a telephonic interruption towards the end. The finale was impetuous, after a fashion that sometimes intrigued, though it lacked the warmth and humanity Davis would surely have imparted. Its darkest moments, however, were handled well, with some baleful and/or malevolent sonorities produced by the orchestra.

That was at best, then, a curate’s egg, yet I was quite unprepared for the novelty of a performance of Mozart’s Requiem that failed so much as once to move. The Introit opened with excellent choral singing; indeed the contribution from the London Symphony Chorus throughout was beyond reproach. Heft and precision were equally impressive. The LSO’s playing was mercifully free of ‘authenticke’ affectation. Unfortunately, however much one might have wished it so, that was not nearly enough. Once again, Sado appeared to progress, if that be the word, from bar to bar, without a hint of the phrase, let alone the paragraph. The effect, here and elsewhere, was oddly neutral. Admittedly, dancing around on the podium did not help, yet, even though the disconnection between what we saw and what we heard seemed more or less absolute, that proved least of the irritations suffered. The ‘Kyrie’ was sturdy, almost propulsive, offering signs of hope, though hardly imploring, leading one to wonder whether Sado had any understanding of the words, let alone the music. There followed a manically, perhaps even maniacally, fast ‘Dies Irae’: faster, it seemed, even than Karajan, yet it was merely fast rather than furious. Again, choral singing was excellent, yet Sado gave not the slightest hint of understanding what might be at stake in this day of wrath; it akin to a bad parody of what Toscanini might have done to this great work.

The ‘Tuba mirum’ at least offered some good solo singing, Andrew Foster-Williams proving a spirited, if at times slightly bluff, bass, responded to by Maximilian Schmitt’s beautiful, Tamino-like tenor. Helen Vollam’s trombone solo was equally fine. Daniela Lehner’s mezzo seemed simply to be trying too hard, however, her tone forced. Elizabeth Watts sang and phrased her soprano line well; the lack of consolation, one felt, was to be attributed to Sado’s lack of a true guiding hand. Superlative choral singing in the ‘Rex tremendae’ nevertheless lacked a Mozartian to direct it musically. And if the ‘Recordare’ were fluent, it was fluency of an utterly mechanical nature. At one point, the conductor was close to kneeling, as if he were a bird about to take flight; would that one might have said the same about his ‘interpretation’. Had the mechanical quality been an evident interpretative decision, one might have queried such a Stravinskian path; Mozart, as Stravinsky ironically once put it, is surely ‘poorer’ than that. Alas, there was nothing so interesting, nothing so provocative, to be heard; extraordinarily, this ravishingly beautiful movement soon sounded merely monotonous. If anything, the ‘Confutatis’ was more band-masterly than the ‘Dies irae’: merciless, yet by default. Perhaps the nadir was reached at the ‘Lacrimosa’, all present and correct, yet bizarrely unmoving, as Sado plodded not just from bar to bar but beat to beat. If tears do not well up during this day of weeping, then something has gone awry; something most certainly had.

A perky ‘Domine Jesu’? I suppose that might have offered a point of view, albeit one challenging to fathom. Yet, again, that seemed more by default than anything else. The ‘Quam olim Abrahae’ section managed somehow to sound both impetuous and static, such was Sado’s apparent inability to communicate its harmonic rhythm. This might have been a sewing-machine pattern. By the time we had reached the ‘Hostias’, even the orchestra sounded somewhat lacklustre; I cannot say that I blamed it. There is always a danger of sounding bland in the (dubious) ‘Sanctus’; here, unsurprisingly, danger was courted, the ensuing ‘Osanna’ merely brusque. How I longed for some light and shade in the ‘Benedictus’. Were doggedness your thing, you might have found something to enjoy here; to me, it sounded more like the coming of a bulldozer than of the Holy Ghost. The ‘Agnus Dei’ offered more of the same, really. Chrous, orchestra, and soloists (well, most of them) deserved much better; so did Mozart. I had given up the will to die, let alone to live.

Mark Berry