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Haydn, Mozart and Nielsen: Mitsuko Uchida (piano), London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis (conductor) Barbican Hall, London. 6.5.2010 (GD)

: Symphony No 97 in C major

Piano Concerto in G major, K 453, No 17

Nielsen: Symphony No. 4   'The Inextinguishable'

At the time of their first performances in London during May 1792 of the first set of Haydn’s six 'Salomon'  symphonies, Nos. 97 and 98 were thought to be the most resplendent of the set; No 98 for its solemn 'Adagio', and No 97 for its splendid pomp and C major brilliance. This view has not sustained itself and today No 97 is rarely played in concert. Davis conducted a fairly standard, rather old fashioned, performance of the symphony with no less than six double basses and a large string compliment. After an uncertain C major introductory chord, the lead into the 'Adagio' and the 'Vivace' was managed quite competently, although I didn't hear very much resembling ‘vivace in it.’ Davis's rhythms were all rather four square, and although the trumpets came alive at the movement’s C major coda, I missed the cutting dissonance of horns at the end of the exposition and the clashes between horns and trumpets in the development section, as can be heard in quasi - ‘period’ performances from the likes of Harnoncourt, Adam Fischer, and Brüggen. The set of free variations that constitutes the 'Adagio' went quite well until we reached the F minor variation which initiates 43 - bar 'sul ponticello' section in which I also didn't notice any attempt by the strings to achieve this effect. The older style 'Menuetto' lacked contrast and swagger, and the finale as 'Presto assai' lacked the mercurial wit found here by Harnoncourt.

Despite the usual musicality and brilliance from Uchida, the same impression I formed of the Haydn symphony prevailed in the ‘locus classicus’ of concerto form by Mozart – a description not strictly true in the singular in fact, since all of Mozart’s piano concertos, from K271 onwards are unique in the their own exquisite terms. It seems now that with performances from the likes of Coin, Staier, Richard Goode, and indeed Mackerras with Brendel and the superb Scottish Chamber Orchestra, older styles of performance with a large modern orchestra, such as we had here, have been superseded – at least in terms of eloquence, contrast/diversity and sheer stylistic finesse. Again Davis's rhythms were four-square with little sense of buoyancy and elegance. The G major opening ritornello merely plodded along in  an adequately competent manner, but lacked all sense of grace, irony, charm and wit. The all important 'concertante' woodwind sequences, especially in the C major  'Andante', were on the whole well played, despite some tuning problems at the start of the finale 'Allegretto'. But Davis's rather thick string textures tended to obscure these beautiful sequences and on several occasions I had the impression of Uchida's natural sense of agility and pace being held back by Davis's rather turgid tempo choices. And where was the operatic brilliance in the final 'Presto' of the variations of the finale that Tovey referred to as 'the culmination of pure opera buffa'? It is hoped that Uchida will soon record this unique concerto with the Cleveland Orchestra, the first release of which did not include K271 but was brilliantly successful in conveying her real empathy with Mozart's idiom.

Like the Haydn symphony, but for different reasons, Nielsen's superb cycle of six symphonies, are still relatively neglected in concert, in  London at least, compared with his contemporary Sibelius. The Fourth, is aptly named the 'Inextinguishable', as representing a kind of stoical commentary on the grim determination of all life forces both progressive and disruptive; no hint of any Nietzschean 'Ubermensch' vitalism here. Davis launched into the opening fire of symphonic conflict; exploding into full energy from two opposing keys, C and D minor, with a real 'Allegro' conviction. It is a pity that at the very start, there were two late entries on the ff double timpani figure but by the time we reached the first development section, moving with real tutti fff frenzy from remote minor keys and striving progressively towards the resplendent home key chorale in E major, ( marked 'glorioso' by the composer incidentally) the performance really caught fire and one was in the thrall of some of the most extraordinary powerful orchestral writing of the early Twentieth Century - from the summer of 1914 to be exact, which of course tells its own story. Here, as in much of this protean work, we experience the clash of both extreme vivacity (life force) and the undertow of darker, even destructive forces – which Freud, writing at much the same  time, referred to as the realm of 'Thanatos', or 'Death drive'. Here Nielsen's orchestration is truly unique: there are shattering timpani, swirling string cross-rhythms, hectic brass stabs and quasi-chorale figures, with screaming piccolo and high flutes cutting through the severe textures. The actual climax of the movement, where the tonic E major is once again heroically rammed home in chorale form, gives way, in one of the most beautifully subtle of transitions, to the G major of the intermezzo- like second movement 'Poco allegretto.' This was handled well enough but sadly , the initial fire was not rekindled. The LSO woodwind played the second movement very well too, although I missed the pastoral tranquility found in this music by some other conductors, such as Grondhal and Blomstedt.  

The canonic discussion in the strings punctuated by bass pizzicato and timpani, that initiates the third movement’s 'poco adagio quasi andante' had a direct and fitting stoical quality tonight, with the transition to the final allegro disruption finely handled. The finale itself, as Robert Simpson once remarked, is pure sustained 'power' and 'energy', though an energy which is nevertheless contained in a continually threatened symphonic structure,  thereby greatly increasing its frisson and tensions. The rhythmic disruptions and fierce dissonances here are reinforced by two sets of timpani, tonight placed as is now usual practice,  at opposite sides of the orchestra. (Nielsen initially recommended that one set of timpani be placed as near the audience as possible, but most conductors prefer the modern practice.) Tonight the fierce tri-tonal rhythmic patterns in the timpani writing didn't have their full effect, partly because the timpanist at stage right played with less rhythmic attack than his partner at stage left, and partly because of the general slackening of  tension, already mentioned. The devastating D minor chord in the timpani, which is torn in a tutti glissando, didn't really make its shattering effect and the final tonal struggle from the stern driving force of D minor to the coda's concluding 'crucial' tonic E major, although well articulated, failed to  register its overwhelming sense of power and resolution.

Geoff Diggines


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