Mozart – Symphony no.35 in D major, ‘Haffner’, KV 385
Strauss – Four Last Songs
Elgar – Symphony no.3 in C minor, elaborated by Anthony Payne
Sally Matthews (soprano)London Symphony Orchestra
Gordan Nikolitch (director)Martyn Brabbins (conductor)
It would have been difficult not to have felt some disappointment at this, which had been intended as Sir Colin Davis’s eighty-fifth birthday concert, the actual birthday having taken place two days previously. Both Sir Colin and one of the anticipated piano soloists, Dame Mitsuko Uchida, fell ill, and Radu Lupu also withdrew. The advertised Schubert Rondo in A major for piano duet, D 951, and Mozart Concerto for Two Pianos disappeared, to be replaced by a conductorless Haffner Symphony and a performance of the Four Last Songs by a soprano whose previous account of the work with the LSO had, to put it diplomatically, offered a somewhat mixed experience.
The show must nevertheless go on, and this remained a concert in Sir Colin’s honour, with birthday greetings in the programme booklet from friends, colleagues, ambassadors. André Previn suggested that the two of them should check in with each other when they were 100. Anne-Sophie Mutter described him as ‘one of the half handful of my most admired musicians’: quite a claim, the more one thinks about it. Nikolaj Znaider waxed most lyrical of all: ‘Once in a while we may ... encounter a being of such force that it seems to completely alter our own course. Such is the influence of Sir Colin Davis on me. ... Sir Colin’s wisdom, humility, sincerity and above all his friendship and camaraderie shall be my northern star.
Anthony Payne’s ‘elaboration’ of Elgar’s Third Symphony received the best performance of the evening. Brabbins immediately seemed more at home; so in fact did the LSO. The angry opening of the first movement spoke for itself in unexaggerated fashion, the surprisingly modernistic scoring (Elgar’s own, be it noted) contrasting in almost textbook fashion with the tender, lyrical second subject. One could have no doubt that something important was at stake in the battle royal of the development, the LSO brass predictably terrific. The recapitulation was no mere return, but an intensification, weighed down by memory though always clear-eyed. There was a typical sense of loss to the scherzo, which yet emerged with more than a hint of Mendelssohn. Later on, my ears were put a little in mind of Berio’s orchestration of Brahms, revealing a certain infidelity through fidelity. It was no worse for that, of course; indeed, the movement proved all the more intriguing for it. The Adagio solenne was dark yet defiant. If its sometimes tortured post-Wagnerian chromaticism is hardly redolent of Schoenberg, it would not necessarily sound out of place in, say, Zemlinsky. I am not entirely sure that the movement does not in itself – or perhaps did not in performance – lose its way a little in the middle, but that may simply be ascribed to a lack of comprehension on my part. Was the opening of the finale a tad too excitable? Perhaps, but better that than staid. Forward impetus was impressively maintained throughout, though never at the cost of flexibility. The closing mists had shades not only of Strauss’s Alpine Symphony but perhaps even of late Mahler, coincidentally or otherwise. Tellingly, I had long since given up thinking what Davis might have done and was enjoying Brabbins’s performance on its own terms. Payne, whom I could see during that performance, was visibly involved throughout.
That said, let us all hope that Sir Colin will be back at the helm of the LSO as soon as possible.