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S & H International Concert Review

Beethoven: Symphony No. 8 in F major, Op. 93, Stravinsky: The Firebird (1910), London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis, Conductor, Avery Fisher Hall, New York City, January 21, 2004 (BH)


What a refreshing change to hear this underplayed Beethoven, rather than Nos. 3, 5, 7 or 9, and under the completely commanding baton of Sir Colin Davis, this Eighth was even more ebullient than usual. This is one of the composer’s happier works, and from the way the orchestra dug in to the score, it is clear they enjoyed it, too. Davis made an elegant figure on the podium, and his sweeping movements encouraged the musicians to pursue that long line; his phrasing, it can’t be said often enough, is one of his huge strengths. In an age when routine over-management causes a score’s momentum to be lost, Davis has a straightforward approach that is quite appealing. He also found a good bit of humor in some of Beethoven’s high contrasts.

After Sunday’s superb Peter Grimes and what was probably an expertly served feast of Sibelius on Monday night (which unfortunately I could not attend), I would venture that many in the audience had been hotly anticipating this Firebird, and they cannot have been disappointed. One impressive feature was the very soft dynamic level demonstrated initially by the double basses, and then matched virtually everywhere else as needed by the violins, violas and cellos. It is difficult to play softly and maintain articulation, but everything – and I do mean everything -- could be heard here.

At the risk of name-dropping, one of the friends with me had played the piece with Stokowski, and recalled his more…shall we say, dramatic approach. For Davis’ performance, she used the word "noble," and I agree. Never overindulgent, he poured out a rich, solid reading instead of what can sometimes seem like a race to the finishing line. I must have heard this piece close to a hundred times, either live or on recordings, and was amazed yet again at how much color and invention are in its forty minutes, and in Sir Colin’s hands, some passages had the luxuriousness of Zemlinsky. Throughout, Davis encouraged a balanced approach – shocking us now and then (in a good way), but never abandoning the tight, overall structure. The glittering flourish that ends the Infernal Dance of All Kastchei’s Subjects was quite overwhelming, followed by complete silence that was so effective that some in the audience apparently thought the piece was over, and tossed out a few limply delivered handclaps.

Fortunately for the rest of us, the evening was not over; otherwise we would have missed some utterly fantastic playing in the final pages. With principal Maurice Murphy leading the charge, the trumpets cut loose with a rock-steady blaze that was never out of proportion in the sound mix. And among many others, the LSO’s three harp players – Karen Vaughan, Nuala Herbert and Thelma Owen – did some beautiful turns in a score that tests them constantly. As the curtain calls began – a rather chaste three or four, given the cheering – the child in me secretly wanted to hear the last five minutes as an encore, until Sir Colin grasped the hand of guest leader Radoslaw Szulc to lead the artists offstage.

If this was not the brush with hysteria that Gergiev and the Kirov offered in the same piece at Carnegie recently, Davis was just as impressive in a thoroughly no-nonsense reading, and maintained a fine sense of momentum, helped by keen attention to rhythmic details. And although Stravinsky’s language might seem far away from Beethoven’s, Davis clearly sees a connection between them.

Bruce Hodges




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