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Seen and Heard Prom Review


PROM 47: Tippett and Beethoven, London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis, conductor, Royal Albert Hall, 19 August, 2005 (TJH)



Tippett – Symphony No. 4

Beethoven – Symphony No. 3 in Eb major, Eroica



Whereas these days it is fashionable to paint Beethoven’s Eroica as a radical document by a radical cleric, as dissonant and frightening today as it must have been to Beethoven’s contemporaries, very few conductors seem capable of simply enjoying the music in its own right.  After all, despite the cataclysm at the heart of the first movement, or the sublime dolorousness of the marche funebre, or a hundred other departures Beethoven makes from the symphonic norm, a lot of this music is in fact nothing less than jolly good fun.



Sir Colin Davis, at least, looked like he was enjoying himself in Friday night’s concert with the London Symphony Orchestra.  He was unperturbed by the music’s wilder aspects, just as he was untroubled by that somewhat invidious movement towards ‘historically accurate’ Beethoven.  This was old-school, big canvas stuff: expansive in the first pair of movements, exuberant in the last, and grand wherever possible.  Davis twinkled and smiled his way through the first movement, driving the LSO to some thrilling fortissimi, the strings scrubbing away at their tremolandi as if they were going out of fashion.  At one point, Sir Colin loosened his grip on his baton and sent it flying into the orchestra; it’s a tribute to how well he has trained them that not only did the players scarcely bat an eyelid, but they managed to faithfully return his stick without dropping a single beat.



The second movement was beautifully played, if a little fatigued – as perhaps a funeral march should be.  The third movement, too, only seemed to zing during the noisy bits, although when those moments came along they were exciting enough to make up for the more subdued sections.  No such criticism could be levelled at the finale, however: I’ve rarely heard it sound so good.  Taut, alert playing from the orchestra helped, but so did Davis’ instinct for large scale phrasing, creating a set of Variations that felt truly symphonic rather than repetitive.  It all came together magically at the climactic moment when the horns play Beethoven’s Prometheus theme at half-speed: Davis made this sound majestically full-bodied, almost Wagnerian.  It certainly hit all the right buttons for the Prommers, some of whom chose to make their delight known quite a number of bars before the double bar line.  Well, one can’t have too much applause can one?



Equally satisfying but very different in character was Tippett’s Fourth Symphony, which occupied the first half of the programme.  Composed in 1976-7, it is a single, half-hour long movement which – like Sibelius’ Seventh – goes through four distinct sections corresponding to the normal symphonic order.  But whereas Sibelius uses the form to concentrate his ideas, Tippett uses it to proliferate them.  Each section is a veritable profusion of themes and motifs, all of them memorable enough to be clearly recognisable when they return in the ‘finale’ (actually a recapitulation of the first section).  The melody which binds everything together, a recurring motif on the six horns, sounded more and more haunting at every return in Friday’s performance; in fact the brass section was exemplary throughout – not always an attribute the LSO can claim – and the rest of the orchestra kept standards impeccably high.  The exotically perfumed ‘slow movement’ sounded like a distant cousin to Bartók’s brand of Night Music, with a winding flute solo floating above dreamy filigree from piano and marimba.  Its theme returned as the music wound down from an exciting central scherzo episode, eventually leaving just the (admittedly rather gimmicky) sound of breathing, electronically produced.  But as with Beethoven, Davis managed to make the sheer variety of ideas seem utterly essential, tying everything up beautifully in the closing bars; and as with Beethoven, it received a deservedly rapturous response from the audience.  A triumphant concert in all respects.



Tristan Jakob-Hoff           



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