Opera + Classical Music Reviews

London Symphony Orchestra/Davis @ Barbican Hall, London

23 May 2008

Sir Colin Davis is normally a conductor who can be relied on to seek out the essence of a composer’s score and communicate it to the audience without exaggeration or effect.

It was therefore disappointing to encounter partway through this interpretation of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra a decision from the conductor so radical and untoward that the resulting performance can only be described as unacceptable.

Sir Colin’s intervention, coming after a straightforward and successful performance of the first movement, was to reverse the order of the second and third movements. When I first heard the Scherzo’s dancing rhythm unexpectedly in place of the Adagio’s Wagner tubas, my first thought was that it was a ghastly mistake, but it soon become clear that it was intentional. Unfortunately, the rearrangement of Bruckner’s carefully organised structure, as well as the disruption of the expected transitions between the four movements, was completely disorientating.

The Seventh is such a luminous, evocative and wonderfully crafted symphony that it seems puzzling why anyone would want to change it. However, the conductor of the first performance in 1884, Arthur Nikisch wasn’t satisfied with the work in its original form and persuaded Bruckner to include a cymbal crash and percussion at the climax of the Adagio and introduce various tempo changes in the finale. These changes remain controversial, but since Bruckner apparently agreed them they are included in the authorised score edited by Nowak, the version performed in this concert.

At least Nikisch’s amendments had the imprimatur of Bruckner. Sir Colin’s changes have no such authorisation. The concert’s programme booklet was silent on the subject, but at home I did some research and discovered that Sir Colin’s 1987 recording for Orfeo also contains the middle movements in the wrong order. (One Bruckner website actually goes as far as to list this disc under a section entitled “Discographic Horrors”.)

Had it not been for Sir Colin’s unhelpful changes, this would have been a fine performance of the Seventh. The structure was well paced, the performance had a strong forward momentum and climaxes were stirring. The playing of the LSO was generally excellent, with numerous evocative string tremolandos, finely blended brass, and firmly projected cellos and double basses. Not everything was ideal, though. The brass were over-bright in the finale and, as so often, Bruckner’s a tempo marking was ignored in the symphony’s coda. Nevertheless, this was for the most part a strong, exultant interpretation.

The concert commenced with Schubert’s Fifth Symphony, a work written when the composer was 19. The performance featured rhythmically alert allegros and supple phrasing in the Andante, Sir Colin conducting the reduced sized orchestra as much with his eyebrows as with his baton. No controversy here.

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