Opera + Classical Music Reviews

LSO/Davis @ Barbican, London

3 October 2007

Sir Colin Davis, one of this country’s most eminent conductors, celebrated his birthday last week with a series of concerts with the LSO in works by two composers with whom he is most readily associated, namely Elgar and Mozart.

He may not stride onto the platform as energetically as he used to, but once on the podium, you could be forgiven that thinking he had just turned sixty rather than eighty.

He galvanizes his forces into giving their all and remains eminently watchable throughout, whether coaxing glorious whispers from the orchestra in Elgar’s Violin Concerto or unleashing a torrent of sound from the London Symphony Chorus in Mozart’s Requiem.

Comparisons can be odious, but it was a salutary lesson listening to Sir Charles Mackerras’ (who turned eighty last year) recording of Mozart’s masterpiece in quick succession to Davis’ live Barbican reading (which is to be preserved for posterity on the LSO‘s own label).

When it comes to interpreting Mozart, these two octogenarians are poles apart. Whilst Mackerras has been at the vanguard of authenticity, Davis is unashamedly romantic in the way he interprets Mozart, so it came as no surprise that Davis’ account of the Requiem was traditionally big-boned’ in its approach. This had its pluses and minuses in a performance that sacrificed a sense of urgency and forward-propulsion due to Davis’ reverential approach to Mozart.

The performance had some thrilling moments, but much of it was too pedestrian, especially in the Offertorium (Domine Jesu and Hostias) and Agnus Dei where the orchestral and choral sound became far too fat’. The opening movements fared much better, especially the spine-tingling Dies Irae, whilst soloist Darren Jeffrey used his well-schooled bass to impart a sense of foreboding in the Tuba Mirum (with excellent support from the principal trombone).

Davis had assembled a quartet of soloists based on their ability to integrate into an ensemble rather than on their star pulling power’, and his decision was more than vindicated in the attentive and thoroughly musical contributions they made to the performance. Andrew Kennedy confirmed why he is one of Britain’s most promising tenors with a wonderfully alert performance, whilst Swedish soprano Marie Arnet imbued the soprano lines with lovely, limpid tone throughout. The chorus sang brilliantly and, it almost goes without saying these days, the orchestra played like angels for Davis. They always do.

In the first half of the concert, we were treated to a gloriously unabashed reading of Elgar’s monumental Violin Concerto. He and the orchestra pulled out all the stops in this typically British masterpiece and whilst soloist Gidon Kremer produced some lovely sounds, he seemed reluctant to go into fourth gear which seemed a shame, as the remaining performers were responding lustily to Davis at full throttle. And on the basis of his performances here, I wouldn’t be surprised if Davis remains at full throttle for at least another decade!

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