No amuse-bouche, no fussy entre: the programme for this Barbican concert was kept simple and hearty.
The London Symphony Orchestra, under Sir Colin Davis, and guest pianist Paul Lewis presented an concert of robust orchestration, and neat symmetry, with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 5 in E flat major, the ‘Emperor’, followed by Brahms’ Symphony No 3 in F major.
It made for a satisfying evening, but Brahms might have wondered at the underlying implication. As Andrew Huth reminds us in his programme notes, Brahms was acutely aware of the shadow that Beethoven cast: Hans von Blow had already labelled his First Symphony ‘Beethoven’s Tenth’ and now Hans Richter, having conducted the premiere in 1883, referred to the Third as ‘Brahms’ Eroica’. Certainly, the juxtaposition in this programme underlined the huge energy and emotional range in their work, but the comparison ended there.
Lewis has earned a fine reputation for his performances of Beethoven since his extensive sonata cycle tour a few years back. Frequently he is celebrated for clarity and precision, but his performance here seemed to favour poetic charm over technical accuracy indeed the explosive opening cadenzas sounded a little blurred and, perhaps because of the Emperor’s popularity, he seemed to keen to leave a personal impression on the work.
Subtle rubato tugged at the rhythmic structure of the piano line, but there was no sense of conflict or rivalry with the orchestra (though at one point they all had to compete with a persistent phone alarm). The LSO aided and abetted but never threatened to outshine Lewis with colour and consistency from the strings, and an especially lovely contribution from the woodwind section, Davis milking the heady grandeur of the piece without pushing the drama or resorting to empty showmanship.
An expanded orchestra returned for a thrilling account of the Brahms three. The first movement was a blast, executed with a fast-paced and assertive momentum that continued throughout the Andante and Poco allegretto, though due attention was given to the cool menace that permeates these central movements. Feverish passions returned in the finale and simmered towards the end. It was a tour de force performance from the LSO and it highlighted Davis’s consummate and enduring strengths as a conductor: his warmth, his sensitivity and, above all, his generosity of spirit.