BBC Proms reviews

Prom 47: Tippett – Symphony No 4; Beethoven – Symphony No 3 @ Royal Albert Hall, London

19 August 2005

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall (Photo: Christie Goodwin/Royal Albert Hall)

The ripple of applause after the first movement of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony at this Proms concert summed up the whole event. For not only were members of the audience acknowledging the brilliance of the London Symphony Orchestra’s playing, but Sir Colin Davis, the conductor, was clapping as well – highly unusual at so unconventional a point in a symphony.

And at the concert’s close, they rewarded him in a similar fashion. It symbolises the respect that has grown between this orchestra and their Principal Conductor over the last ten years. They have a mutual energy and enthusiasm for the music they perform, resulting in some of the most visceral performances this city has to offer.

This Prom was typical of the kind of programme in which they excel: a familiar work performed with utter freshness, coupled with a less familiar but equally great piece from the twentieth century. Earlier in the year, they presented a mini-series of concerts coupling the music of Michael Tippett in his centenary year with that of his musical god, Beethoven. This clever juxtaposition has not only brought Beethoven lovers to unjustly neglected scores which they can easily access, but also helped to bring out the Beethovenian allusions and models in Tippett’s symphonic and concerto repertoire.

This time we were offered Tippett’s Fourth with Beethoven’s Third. One long continuous movement, the Tippett was written in 1976-7 for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I could believe he wrote it with the CSO’s famous sheen in mind, for the LSO’s semi-American brightness suited the work down to the ground.

Tippett has something of a reputation for writing excessively intellectual and inaccessible music, but in this work I found the opposite. The music’s surface Affekt provides its entertaining discourse, packed with a collage of thematic material. The latter allowed the LSO’s many brilliant soloists to shine, a real ensemble effort. The horn section got the piece off to a great start, merging into the deft dancing theme that saw the LSO’s strings in tip-top form. Leader Gordon Nikolitch always galvanises his team into their greatest capabilities, and here they manoeuvred around Tippett’s tricky contrapuntal textures with panache. The winds clearly enjoyed their prominent role in the slow section; and the percussion was alive throughout.

After the interval, Beethoven’s Eroica got off to a great start in perhaps the best account of the opening movement I have ever heard. Rarely is such elegance apparent, such luminance yet such energy. It was the first time I had ever seen Sir Colin accidentally drop his baton mid-concert – a real sign of his excitement. The second movement was a little disappointing by comparison, sagging towards the end, but the Scherzo was once more lively and the Finale stupendous. The total dedication and lack of ego in these players makes their music making a pleasure to hear. I look forward with eagerness to reviewing many of their concerts in what will no doubt be an unmissable autumn season at the Barbican.

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