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Ionarts-at-Large: Colin Davis & Radu Lupu at the Barbican

Robert R. Reilly once again lends Ionarts his roving ears, this time from London.

Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra opened their concert on Thursday evening, October 1st, with the Mozart Symphony No. 34. The warm glow of the Barbican acoustics perfectly matched the warmth of Davis’ rendition in which Mozart’s music was leisurely savored. This was mellow Mozart, quite at the opposite interpretive pole to that of, for example, Charles Mackerras’ speedy, if not frenetic renditions with the Prague Chamber Orchestra on Telarc. Yes, I know the Mackerras is exciting, but I grew especially to love Mozart’s later symphonies through the approach of Josef Krips (in the venerable recordings with the Concertgebouw Orchestra on Phillips), in which the singing lines are emphasized—almost as if the works were really instrumental operas. In this respect, the LSO sang beautifully, with every shade of nuance finely expressed. Davis was so leisurely in the Andante that it conveyed a kind of delicious sleepiness. This brush with somnolence made the contrast with the spiritedness of the Finale: Allegro vivace all the more pronounced, and Davis brought the celebration to a joyous close. The audience reaction made it clear that I am not alone in appreciating this style of Mozart playing.

Radu Lupu joined Davis and the LSO for Mozart’s Piano concerto No. 20 in D minor, certainly one of the most exquisite and touching things Mozart ever penned. Davis’ approach was generally the same, i.e., plenty expressive, though slightly less leisurely. At first, Lupu seemed to be playing from inside the orchestra instead of in front of it. Didn’t he know this was a concerto? Yes, in fact he did, as was evident in his later exchanges with the orchestra and in the exquisitely executed cadenzas. No doubt, my impression came from the quality of interiority at which Lupu aimed and which he achieved. His subtle playing has a kind of purity to it, or something akin to childlike innocence, which is also frequently the essence of what Mozart is expressing, even when that innocence is burdened with the sadness of this world, as is the case in this concerto. In short, no showmanship, simply musicianship from these two masters, Lupu and Davis.

available at Amazon
Carl Nielsen, Symphony No.5 & Concertos et al.,
Kubelik / Danish RSO
The second part of the program consisted of Carl Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony. Davis, of course, has a huge reputation as a Sibelian. However, I had never heard him in Nielsen, and he is apparently working his way through all 6 symphonies for the LSO Live label. From what I heard Thursday night, this is something to look forward to with high anticipation.

Nielsen’s’ Fifth is, in certain respects, a reprise of his Fourth Symphony, the Inextinguishable. Some of its themes are variations of what is heard in the Fourth, and the story line is familiar: the forces of life gently dawning; the forces of life getting tromped on by the anti-life forces; the forces of life fighting back and emerging triumphant. Nielsen follows this scenario a couple of times in the two-part 5th. The Inextinguishable is one of the greatest symphonic expressions of this theme, and the Fifth Symphony does not quite achieve the same stature. However, whatever the similarities, it does distinguish itself from the Fourth with its unconventional shape. In the program notes, Davis is quoted as saying “Nielsen is obsessive, almost relentless…” This particularly applies to the Bolero-like movement in the strings in the first part of the work that meets with marital interruptions from a nasty side drum. Many have referred to the Fifth as Nielsen’s “war symphony.” If so, he must have reflected upon the ugly trench warfare of WW I. (I wonder what Shostakovich’s reaction was to this work. He must have admired Nielsen’s mastery at creating a sense of menace.) Timpani assaults disturb but cannot overcome the development of the triumphant theme. The side drum physically moves toward stage right and then, while the rest of the orchestra fights for and achieves a climax almost as magnificent as the one at the end of the Fourth, moves off stage completely, as if exiled from the musical community (I find this bit of extra-musical theatricality distracting). Only the faintest echo of the defeated side drum is heard. The second movement bolts forth in media res in one of Nielsen’s most vigorously developed and exciting pieces of music. The fugal writing in the Presto and the gorgeous Andante in the second part is staggering good, and the playing of the NSO in these parts was particularly beyond praise, as it was when Nielsen reaches for another life-affirming culmination at the end.

It is hard to single out sections of the LSO for special praise in the Fifth because it was so outstandingly superb in all departments. This is great symphonic music that makes maximal demands, and it was played by an orchestra that met them in exactly the kind of triumph that Nielsen was trying to express.

(The program repeats on Sunday, October 4.)

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