Opera + Classical Music Reviews

LSO / Davis: Elgar – Introduction and Allegro, Schumann – Piano Concerto, Walton – Symphony No 1 @ Barbican Hall, London

23 September 2005

The LSO’s second concert of the season offered an eclectic programme of one of the great romantic piano concerti, sandwiched between works by two of the finest English composers of the last century. Yet the imaginative programme – typical Colin Davis fare – was probably not the reason for the Barbican Hall being sold out.

The opportunity of hearing the great Mitsuko Uchida playing the Schumann Piano Concerto was too exciting to be ignored. It’s nice to see her returning to Romantic-period repertoire, because she so often sticks to the First and Second Viennese Schools (in which she excels, I hasten to add) – in fact, she’s bringing a concert of Mozart and Schoenberg to the Barbican on 29 October, which should be unmissable.

The Schumann suits Uchida down to the ground, because it allows her to employ both her innate emotional intelligence and her strong, vigorous technique. Certainly, one could never doubt the energy she threw at the piano – even before starting, she discarded the outer layer of her apparel, leaving her arms free to attack the keyboard.

Perhaps it took her a little time to establish the perfection which one expects of her performances. The huge dotted-rhythms of the opening flourish that return later in the first movement showed unevenness: the discordant notes in each dotted pair were not always accented appropriately, leaving the blander consonant notes on the ear. This did not help to propel the music forward, and the pedalling was at first rather muffled.

But at the recapitulation something fell into place, and the rest of Uchida’s performance was a marvel. In particular, the cadenza of the first movement was spellbinding, with every note of each massive chord cluster struck with precision and purpose.

Uchida’s special relationship with the orchestra made this very much an ensemble effort, as befits Schumann’s intentions – he wanted to interweave orchestra and soloist into a complex scene. Throughout, one had the sensation of spontaneity: as the cello part took over from the piano in the second movement, there was a special bond of trust between the performers that generated a magical dialogue in music.

To open the concert, Davis and the LSO programmed Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for Strings, Op 47. Featuring a string quartet and full strings with divided parts throughout, the piece shows the composer pushing his forces to their technical limits; as a former violinist himself, Elgar knew what challenges with which to present them.

The LSO certainly seemed to enjoy the piece, and the solo group, featuring leader Gordan Nikolitch swimming about on stage in his customary enthusiasm, was exemplary. Yet I felt it was all a bit rough, lacking the precision, control and bite of an ideal performance – the voices of the prominent fugue section weren’t quite independent in the way one expects of this type of neo-classical contrapuntal music.

One could hardly fault the concert’s rousing finale, however. Walton’s First Symphony is a stunning piece, and it was given a barn-storming performance by the LSO on top form.

The wind section was in particularly exuberant form, with an outstanding oboe solo in the first movement, for instance. The opening timpani roll gave a booming start, and as the rest of the orchestra entered with Walton’s clashing B flat-F-G pitches, one was struck once more by the brilliance of their combined sound as it all melded together.

The Scherzo’s violence was disconcertingly vivid, and the slow movement gave rise to lovely flute solos, piercingly dangled above the general ensemble timbre. And the bright, brassy, cinematic quality of the final movement reminded us of the LSO’s distinguished contributions to film soundtracks (including the latest Harry Potter movie).

After a slightly routine start, then, this concert showed the LSO at its best.

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