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Stravinsky, R. Strauss, Beethoven: Sally Matthews (soprano), London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 20.3.2011 (MB)

Stravinsky - Symphony in Three Movements

Strauss - Four Last Songs

Beethoven - Symphony no.6 in F major, op.68

Only a tone-deaf fool could doubt Stravinsky's compositional genius, even if some of us who flatter ourselves that we are neither entirely foolish nor entirely tone-deaf may harbour doubts about some of those works where the composer fell most deeply into the quicksands of neo-classicism ( Orpheus and Apollo, for example). Yet his æsthetic influence, or at least the influence of the æsthetic propounded under Stravinsky's name - the Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons is far from exclusively his work - has been more questionable, not least the typically polemical nonsense about music being unable to express anything other than itself. Even his compositional legacy remains ambivalent: if Stravinsky, by virtue of his very genius, could convincingly play with hollowed-out tonality beyond its sell-by date, that does not absolve his camp followers from the twin charges of tedium and populism: an odd pair, but unquestionably combined in a great deal of minimalism.

So how would Sir Colin Davis fare in a work such as Symphony in Three Movements, a work tipping its hat towards the symphonic form in which Davis so often excels, yet which is better understood as anti-symphonic? Very well, as it happens, reminding us that the conductor once led a good number of performances of Stravinsky's music. For one so unfailingly alert to the humanity of Mozart's music - an increasingly rare gift in an age of unforgivably brutalised Mozart - Sir Colin rendered the first movement of Stravinsky's work as mechanistic to a tee, those 'inspiring' wartime news-reels coming to life before our mind's eyes. The LSO's precision came as no surprise, given its accustomed excellence, but should still be noted, not least the barbarism - in a positive sense! - of its brass section. Occasionally, I felt that the tempo might have benefited from being a little swifter, but clarity and general relentlessness by and large compensated. The fantastical development of the harp-led second movement proved evocative of the ballet: Stravinsky's Scènes de ballet and Jeu de cartes came to mind. The LSO's woodwind section seized its opportunity to shine, with delightful interventions from the strings. The darker, more sinister moments were equally well painted. (And this, whatever Stravinsky's anti-Romantic declarations, is surely 'programme' music as well as its supposedly 'absolute' antithesis.) The final movement was mercilessly triumphant in its dehumanised and dehumanising glory, if anything more so at a slightly more measured tempo than we generally hear. Heft and attack were impeccable, as were the more soloistic moments: there was some superb bassoon playing in particular. In Davis's hands, rhythms both harked back to the Rite - of which, once again, he used to be a noted exponent - whilst the fugue also looked forward to works such as Agon and even Movements, for all their difference in musical language. Is it yet too late to hope that we might hope for some late Stravinsky from Sir Colin? (Or indeed from anyone else, for it is music that is scandalously neglected, whether by conductors or concert promoters…)

For all the continued excellence of the LSO's performance, with some gorgeous orchestral detail revealed, the Four Last Songs that followed were best forgotten, the worst account I have heard. Sally Matthews was a late substitution for Elza van den Heever. Matthews's small voice is simply not up to the task, nor is her strange - merging into indistinct - German diction: when one could hear the words, they sounded closer to Dutch. To begin with, I wondered whether some fault lay as much with the conductor: Strauss has not formed a major part of Sir Colin's repertoire, though he has brought magic to Ariadne auf Naxos, both at Covent Garden and on DVD from Dresden. The beat was laboured in Frühling, and September was very slow indeed, distended even, its bar lines again far too evident. Yet, in the latter, it sounded very much as though the slowness was that of the soloist (and I love slow tempi when they work: think of Janowitz and Karajan…). Matthews, however, was merely making a meal out of it, audibly taking breaths within phrases. And yet, there was stillness at the end, in preparation for that horn solo, heart-rendingly delivered by David Pyatt: a true sense of an old man's farewell. Beim Schlafengehen again brought orchestral revelations, not least from inner parts, violas in particular. Yet it sounded less like 'going to sleep' than long since turned comatose. Upon Matthews's entry, the music slowed, the introduction having been relatively swift; throughout, the vocal line was effortful. Gordan Nikolitch's violin solo was, as expected, exquisite, with a beautiful touch of portamento. Strings were rich for that final orchestral hurrah, the introduction to Im Abendrot. The rest, you will be able to write for yourselves by now…

The day was saved by an excellent account of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony. After the laboured Strauss, a perky first movement - never, be it noted, driven - came as quite the antidote. The LSO sounded wonderfully cultivated: everything well articulated, without exaggeration. Perhaps there was something slightly neutral to the first movement performance, but the occasional doubt disappeared in a beautifully shaped, which is to say 'natural'-sounding, 'Scene by the Brook', which flowed more quickly than one might have expected. Articulation was again exemplary, especially woodwind phrasing. Davis imparted a splendid sense of building momentum, from which one could happily enjoy the rest of the aural view, grainy bassoons and magically pure flute and clarinet solos included. In a less than excellent performance of this movement, I have been known to tire: no such chance here. The third movement emerged as a true scherzo, alternately light-footed and vigorous, the woodwind again superlative. Its trio was rustic without the slightest hint of crudity; this was very much a dance, joyful rather than driven. The transition to the fourth movement was seamless, full of uneasiness, foreboding, whilst the storm clearly presaged Berlioz. The LSO was as magnificent as in Sir Colin's performances of Les Troyens, rhythmic attack and colour equally crucial. The finale brought that serene nobility which might be considered Beethoven's - and Davis's - stock-in-trade, but which one should never take for granted. Earlier virtues of articulation and colour (woodwind and horns) were very much present, as was true, unforced exultancy.

Mark Berry

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