Opera + Classical Music Reviews

LSO/Davis @ Barbican, London

3 March 2007

Twenty five years after the Barbican Centre first opened, it remains the most vibrant, culturally diverse and consistently vital home for culture in London.

Champagne may have flowed following Saturday evening’s birthday bash, but the real fizz was to be found in the concert hall.

Colin Davis has relinquished his duties as Principal Conductor of the LSO, but the rapport between orchestra and conductor is undiminished, if the breathtaking performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony is anything to go by.

Yes, the first movement lacked that specific overall vision, and Davis’ willingness to retract the tempo – to illuminate a woodwind solo or allow a cello passage to flower – resulted in some awkward speedings up. And yes, the Scherzo‘s string pizzicato lacked an edge of precision. But then that precision is arguably unnecessary in such a depiction of gleeful inebriation, and elsewhere it was hard to find fault with the interpretation.

The Fate motif of the first movement stung in its violence; the shattering forte stabs took the breath away. Violins soared in the Andantino, providing luxurious icing on the most bittersweet of cakes. And Davis’ Finale belied the composer’s insistence that this movement is overtly joyful. Even before Fate‘s shattering interruption on the trumpets, hurried strings, screaming brass and sinister dynamic surges warned that all was not rosy at this funfair. It was a demented climax and a brilliant one.

In The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, James MacMillan attempts to induce a similarly passionate response, but even the LSO’s suggestive playing here could not disguise the composer’s reliance on cheap, theatrical tools to evoke violent emotions. Hacking percussion, textural disparity and harmonic clashes soon tire the ear (seventeen years after the work’s premiere, we have heard it all too many times), and what sticks in the mind are the elegiac outer sections. It is hard to resist the intoxication of the opening, with a fragile woodwind texture moulding into a disorientating maze of string slides. And expertly handled is the transition to comedy in the work’s centre, where bouncy rhythms, ridiculous trombone motifs and quickfire dialogues between instruments provide a fabulously inappropriate counterpoint to the witch’s strangulation and incineration.

After such fireworks, Mozart’s Piano Concerto 21 sat uneasily, though Mitsuko Uchida‘s dynamism on the piano provided much to enjoy. Her famed technical facility allows her to brush off and find tenderness in even the most fiendish of passages, and the bouncy third movement was shaped with unusual clarity and no loss of virtuosic exhilaration. A number of skipped notes and smudges were disguised by an immensely lush orchestral accompaniment, though they were evident enough to make the semi-standing ovation something of an anomaly.

And finally, the surprise encore was the world premiere of MacMillan’s Stomp. Written to commemorate the occasion it may have been, but I found little joy in this confusion of Mozart and Tchaikovsky, with the previously-heard melodies bizarrely crunched together and torn to fragmentary shreds in the name of celebration. At least there was free booze to follow.

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