Saturday, 24 May 2008

LSO/Davis: Schubert and Bruckner, 23 May 2008

Barbican Hall

Schubert – Symphony no.5 in B-flat major, D.485
Bruckner – Symphony no.7 in E major (ed. Nowak)

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis (conductor)

A surprisingly small London Symphony Orchestra – ten first violins and so on – assembled on the stage for Schubert’s Fifth Symphony. Had Sir Colin Davis finally succumbed to the ‘authenticity’ bug? That is scarcely more likely than Daniel Barenboim or Riccardo Muti doing so, and the answer remained no, yet there was something a little – and I do not wish to exaggerate – perfunctory about this performance. The tempo of each movement was swifter than one might have expected, the outer movements fast by any standards and all the music more urgently driven than Davis’s Mozart. Schubert marked the second movement as a flowing Andante con moto and this was certainly what we heard. If not quite hard-driven, I thought that Davis might profitably have yielded a little more. The ‘minuet’ (Allegro molto) was taken one beat to a bar, although there was – thankfully – a considerable relaxation for the rustic, rather Haydnesque trio. This was recalled in a slight relaxation for the second subject of the finale, which worked well, but otherwise there was little variation of tempo. There were numerous instances of finely-etched instrumental detail, for instance carefully-projected bass lines, beautiful horn arpeggios at the close of the second movement, and a telling bassoon underlay in the third movement’s trio. It was all very stylish, not least in its unerring articulation, and was without exception most beautifully performed, but ultimately something was missing. Although I can appreciate the retort that Teutonic profundity would be out of place in this work and should agree that an attempt to transform it into late Bruckner would be misguided, I am far from convinced that an attempt to penetrate deeper beneath the surface would have been in vain. Karl Böhm in his Vienna recording of the work provides an object lesson in this respect, as indeed do many of Davis’s own Schubert recordings with the Staatskapelle Dresden.

The orchestra reverted to full-size for Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony. It opened most promisingly, with a beautifully – yet never self-consciously – moulded ’cello line, surrounded by shimmering upper strings. How glorious the full orchestra now sounded, the brass soon making us realise just how ‘full’ it was. There were in this first movement slight yet telling hints of rubato, which would not have gone amiss later on. For this was as about far from a Furtwänglerian reading as one might travel, not that anyone – even Barenboim – conducts Bruckner like Furtwängler any more. There was an implacability that perhaps recalled Klemperer, although the sheer beauty of orchestral sound had more in common, rather to my surprise, with Karajan. Davis’s care with articulation and phrasing were once again worthy of note.

Then, however, something truly extraordinary happened. Instead of the expected Adagio we heard the Scherzo. It appears that this has been Davis’s practice in the past; it is certainly the order to which he adheres in his Orfeo recording with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. But why? It is, I freely admit, refreshing to experience a performance that stands for itself rather than being prefaced by lengthy ‘justifications’, but in this case, I do think that at least some reference in the programme to this unusual – to put it mildly – practice would have been welcome. This is not a disputed case, such as the movement order of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, but a unilateral reorganisation, all the more surprising given that it hails from a conductor with a far from radical reputation. As it happens, it worked better than I should have expected, at least until the finale, which, coming after the Adagio, sounded more lightweight than ever and simply seemed incapable of taking the emotional and musico-dramatic strain.

Much of what we heard, however, was once again extremely beautiful. There was a sense of the apocalyptic to the Scherzo, not in an overriding metaphysical (Furtwänglerian) manner, but it was nevertheless present. The care taken to spring the movement’s rhythms was much appreciated by this listener. Silences were observed, though never milked; both here and in the Adagio, Davis displayed a commendable ability to incorporate Bruckner’s silences into an overarching phrasal structure. The ending of the trio sounded oddly dissipated, but this was very much an exception. Depth of tone was wonderfully apparent in much of the Adagio, although there were lighter moments too, perhaps a few too many. The depth of the strings did not preclude a full appreciation of woodwind soli, especially that of Gareth Davies’s truly magical flute. Again, the conductor’s moulding of phrases was exquisite, without sounding appliqué. This being the Nowak edition, we heard the cymbal clash suggested to the composer by Arthur Nikisch. The finale’s opening sounded more than usually jaunty, which, as I suggested above, was exacerbated by the reordering of the inner movements. This opening phrase was, however, surrounded once again by ravishingly shimmering strings. The LSO’s brass section soon reached volume-levels very close to its fabled Chicago Symphony counterpart, albeit without the slightest hint of brashness. An unfortunate horn slip toward the end highlighted the otherwise extremely high level of orchestral execution, which produced a most impressive weight to the symphony’s conclusion. However, some flexibility in tempo would have made this movement seem less of a race and more viable as a solution to the ‘finale problem’ that had dogged symphonists since Beethoven. I suspect that this would not have been enough, given the reordering, but it would have helped. As for the latter aspect, I can only ask again: why?