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Mozart and Berlioz: Richard Goode (piano), Colin Lee (tenor), London Symphony Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 22.2.2009 (MB) 

Mozart: Piano concerto no.18 in B-flat major, KV 456
Berlioz: Te Deum 

This, rather to my surprise, was chamber-scale Mozart, with only eight first violins and the other strings scaled down accordingly. Whether this corresponded to the wishes of Sir Colin Davis, Richard Goode, or both, I can only surmise. It is not that, save for an occasional thinness of string tone, there was anything wrong with the LSO’s performance, far from it. But the balances and crisp tonal quality were at times more reminiscent of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and Sir Neville Marriner than of Sir Colin’s typically more full-blooded approach. That said, there were moments of sheer magic, such as the ineffably beautiful Harmoniemusik of the Andante, when it was abundantly clear who wielded the baton. Goode proved an exquisite Mozartian. Not only were there some truly melting solo passages; his structural command and elucidation were second to none. For instance, he emphasised, through colouring and discreet ornamentation, yet without didacticism, that the so-called double exposition of the first movement is better understood in terms of ritornello form, albeit refreshed by the experience of newer sonata forms. Indeed, whether as soloist or chamber musician, Goode shone throughout. Davis’s operatic experience was apparent in the opening tutti of the slow movement. This was very much a minor-key scena; I thought immediately of the Countess. Goode’s entry resembled that of an intelligent singer, whilst lacking nothing in his pianism. The chromatic harmonies were heart-rending yet never vulgarised. This is Mozartian variation form at its most perfect – and for once, it sounded so. The coda brought an almost Gluckian note of restrained, noble tragedy. High spirits surfaced in the hunting finale, but this is Mozart, not Haydn, so the musicians ensured through careful shading that the good humour was not untroubled – and not only in the minor-mode episode that looks forward to the D minor concerto, KV 466. Mozart can be even sadder in a major key than a minor key, as Davis and Goode are well aware. This was a distinguished performance, if not quite what I had expected. 

Davis is as renowned for his Berlioz as his Mozart and expectations were therefore as high for the Te Deum as for the concerto; I am glad to report that they were amply fulfilled. There is something very curious about this work. One can tell that Berlioz clearly did not believe a word of the text. Instead, he seems to be attempting a ceremonial piece for the civil religion of the Rousseuvian Enlightenment – or the Revolution. There is no straining to believe, as in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis; rather, the hallowed canticle becomes a vehicle for something distanced and secular. There was quite rightly no piety, cloying or otherwise, to this performance; it was admirably straightforward in its rejoicing.

The opening hymn was exultant, the brass superlative here and throughout. Far from sounding overloaded, the Barbican Hall’s acoustic sounded fulfilled in the wonderful, awe-inspiring mass of instrumental and choral sound that enveloped us. The four pairs of cymbals at the end of the ‘Tibi omnes’ were a sight and a sound at which to marvel. There were more delicate moments too, of course, such as the ravishing woodwind evoking the angels earlier in that hymn, or the combination of organ and pizzicato strings, soon joined by positively Mendelssohnian woodwind, in the opening to the prayer, ‘Dignare, domine’. The organ sounded, as it should, from behind the audience and was clearly, given
Davis’s signals behind himself, being played there too. However, some of the softer registrations betrayed a little too clearly the instrument’s electronic nature. Colin’s Lee and Davis imparted an unexaggerated sense of the operatic to the prayer, ‘Te ergo quaesumus’. One could readily imagine the melody and accompaniment to have been extracted from Benvenuto Cellini. The female voices of the London Symphony Chorus were on very good form for their interventions here. Indeed, the choral singing was generally of a very high standard, my only cavil being that, occasionally when singing more softly, some of the men sounded, sad to say, a little old. However, the boys of Eltham College sounded glorious in the final ‘Judex crederis’. How could one ever be confounded, as the text might have us fear, in the presence of so jubilant a peroration? One could almost hear the bells pealing, even though they are nowhere to be found in the orchestra. The great climax was almost deafening, but thrilling in the best sense. This will be the latest work to join Davis’s Berlioz series for LSO Live. Such a performance certainly merits preservation, even in the face of fierce recorded competition from Sir Colin himself.

Mark Berry

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