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Beethoven:  Yevgeny Kissin (piano), London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis (conductor)  27.9.2007, Barbican Hall, London (MB)

Beethoven: Piano Concerto no.3 in C minor, Op.37
Beethoven: Symphony no.3 in E flat major, Op.55, 'Eroica'

This was the first concert held by the LSO to celebrate the eightieth birthday of Sir Colin Davis, now the orchestra's President. Opinions at such a rarefied level vary, of course, but I should go far as to call Sir Colin the greatest British conductor since Beecham - and this in no sense implies that I consider him Beecham's inferior. (I am assuming that we count Stokowski as American, insofar as it matters.) After a prolonged period in which Davis appeared to be lauded more abroad than at home, British critics appear to have woken up to the fact that this is someone very special indeed, and worthy of celebrating.

The concerto received a duly grand performance. There appears to be little anyone can do completely to rid me of my reservations about the opening tutti. Wonderful though the music may be, it simply seems too long - a full sonata-form exposition - before the soloist enters. Beethoven only really heeded Mozart's example in his final two piano concertos, both towering masterpieces. Nevertheless, Davis and his orchestra played the music for all that it was worth. The strings really dug into the music, and played as if their lives depended upon it. There were no concessions to 'period' sonority or articulation. Articulation was not pitted against phrasing, as tends to be the case with such contemporary performances. (Nikolaus Harnoncourt springs immediately to mind.) Instead, phrases and paragraphs all fitted into their place, as a consequence of a structural command and orchestral weighting that recalled Klemperer. Kissin impressed throughout with his marvellous rich, almost chocolate-like tone. His articulation too was impeccable, again without any recourse to short-breathed preciousness. It sounded as though his reading was informed by his experience of voice-leading in Chopin, which gave his performance a slightly unfamiliar and most welcome twist. Not that it ever sounded 'like' Chopin, with the possible and perfectly justifiable exception of the virtuosic first movement cadenza. There, Kissin's double octaves provided a feast for the ear; they were not indulgent, but they were a treat.

The slow movement was allowed to unfold naturally, organically - or rather, this was how it seemed, for much work is necessary (in Davis's case, of course, many decades of experience) to engender that sense of inevitability. There was no question of adopting the fashionable tendency to rush, of transforming a
Largo into an Andante. In many senses, and certainly for a pianist, Beethoven's slow movements present the greatest challenge of all. To sustain the over-arching line without sacrifice of detail, and to plumb the emotional depths without becoming merely 'heavy' is no easy thing. If I am to be harshly critical, it seemed on occasion as if there could have been greater integration of piano and orchestra. Davis presented a more or less perfect canvas, upon which Kissin painted some ravishing detail, but the element of chamber music was not perhaps quite so evident as it might have been. That said, the woodwind solos here, as throughout, were delectable: somehow both pure and sinuous.

This was also true of the finale, which provided a thrilling and noble conclusion. The orchestra and Sir Colin were on truly wondrous form, and Kissin's pianism proved once again a marvel in its dynamism and delicacy. Indeed, the latter was more to the fore than it had been during the first movement. The one thing lacking on his part, though not on the orchestra's, was a sense of impish humour, never more to the fore than in Beethoven's ornaments and syncopations. I am not sure that Kissin 'does' humour, but this was a minor drawback in a truly heroic account, by far the best I have ever heard 'live'.

Such a performance augured well for the second half of the concert, and we were not to be disappointed. The Eroica is a highlight of Davis's very fine set of Beethoven symphonies with the Staatskapelle Dresden, and this performance was at least as fine. From the shock of those extraordinary - and yet in another sense so 'ordinary' - opening chords onwards, everything, and I mean everything, was in place for an inevitable unfolding of Beethoven's great symphonic narrative. I do not think there was a single chord that was not weighted so as to seem as it could not be otherwise, and the conductor brought a profound sense of understanding to the work's harmonic and rhythmic progress. There was no need for ascetic thinning of textures, let alone for ugly tapering of phrases; nothing was done to bring attention to itself. Instead, the multifarious strands of Beethoven's blend of harmony and counterpart were balanced so as to give just the right measure to both, and never more so than in the finale's variations, where once again comparisons with Klemperer seemed justified: not just his Eroica recordings, but also the Grosse Fuge.

Throughout, the strings - which can sometimes be the Achilles heel of London orchestras - evinced a weight of tone and an athleticism that sounded to the manor born. No other orchestra is ever going to sound like the Vienna Philharmonic, and none is likely to achieve quite the richness of the Staatskapelle Dresden; such odious comparisons aside, it is difficult to imagine how an orchestra could have sounded more suited to the work and to the composer. The brass have long been an especially valued section of the LSO, and they certainly shone on this occasion. Indeed, the horns, led by David Pyatt - is there a better horn player alive? - achieved a perfect blend, closer to Vienna than we have any right to expect, during their celebrated opening to the Scherzo. Before that, the long paragraphs of the Funeral March had unfolded with such grandeur, such nobility, such inevitability, that one could hardly fail to be moved to tears. Davis's moulding of phrases, utterly un-self-conscious, was an object lesson to those who would wish to 'do' too much with, or rather to, this music. Tempo variations in the manner of Furtwängler or Barenboim, let alone Mengelberg, have never been his way. Such is the integrity of approach that what might stand in danger of sounding 'worthy' on paper is anything but in practice, not least since there is no lack of blistering attack where necessary, 'necessary' being the operative word.

David Cairns, in a birthday appreciation printed in the programme, drew attention to the prominence of woodwind in relation to the strings in Davis's Dresden cycle. This was again apparent, and most welcome, given the soloistic brilliance of the LSO's players, although 'prominence' is perhaps not quite the right word. The instruments were allowed to shine where and when necessary, Gareth Davies's flute proving a particular delight. Cairns suggested that Davis might therefore have been more influenced by the period instrument movement than he might care to admit. I do not think this was or is the case at all. The delight in woodwind lines more likely comes from Davis's great experience in Mozart, yet he never wishes to reduce Beethoven, to stress his eighteenth-century inheritance at the expense of what the composer was to usher in. If 'influence' there be, it seems more likely to have come from Klemperer, whose Philharmonia woodwinds were always 'prominent'. But Davis is very much his own man, and all the stronger for it. This concert provided a splendid opportunity to confirm his independence from fashion and, more importantly, his musical intelligence, wisdom, and integrity.


Mark Berry