BRAHMS CENTENARY CONCERTS

LSO/Davis Barbican, London OAE/Weil QEH, London
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The Independent Culture
There are times when one feels like hugging Sir Colin Davis. His 1993 concert performances of Berlioz's The Trojans were full of such moments, and the feeling surged back again at several points in Brahms's Second Symphony last Thursday. This was all the more striking because, until that final item, I'd had my doubts about Davis's Brahms. The St Anthony Variations sounded well enough, the LSO ensemble plush and rounded even in the opening wind-band writing. But, fine as some of the variations were, there was too much gravitas and too little cumulative energy. The finale was imposing but unexciting, its climactic triangle trills more than ever like superfluous tinsel.

There was a similar feeling in the initial orchestral section of the Double Concerto, with the three-against-two rhythms (one of the older Brahms's less lovable fingerprints) dogged and stodgy. But the performance gained in momentum, drama and warmth, thanks to some impressive solo playing, especially from cellist Moray Welsh, who wrung the juices expertly from the finale's second theme. Violinist Alexander Barantschik, fine as he was, felt just a little cold in comparison.

It was the Second Symphony that showed Davis at his huggable best: grandly eloquent and rarely inclined to hurry, but with a compelling, deeply felt overview of the work, and an extra, rare quality one can only describe as humane. The Second Symphony is often characterised as a "happy", "contented" counterpart to the "tragic" First (amazing how simple-minded we programme- note writers can be at times!). Davis showed what an emotionally complex work it is, sometimes radiantly lyrical, sometimes troubled, particularly in the first two movements. Few of Brahms's slow movements are darker or more elegiac than this symphony's Adagio. Yes, the finale is brighter, on the whole, but Brahms does allow a moment's sombre recollection at the heart of the movement. So many performances glide routinely through this passage. There was nothing routine about Davis's reading.

Bruno Weil and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment also included the Second in their all-Brahms concert at the QEH on Monday. Brahms on period instruments is still enough of a novelty to hold the attention as sheer sound, without bringing in questions of interpretation. No question that the balance of the heavy brass and timpani to the rest of the orchestra is more effective on the instruments of Brahms's day. The trombones don't blare in the first movement, and the solo tuba in the Adagio is far less elephantine - more like a soulful bass horn in fact.

There was some fine solo playing in both this symphony and No 4 - Monday's opening work. Particularly telling were Anthony Pay's clarinet, Andrew Clark's horn and Lisa Beznosiuk's soft-toned wooden flute. There were also moments when the limitations of a 19th-century orchestra became apparent: the scrawny cello sound in the Adagio's opening melody, or the rather too frequent split brass notes. One can put up with such imperfections when there is intensity and insight to compensate, but Weil's interpretations were, on the whole, solid and rather four-square. The closing pages of No 2 were exhilarating, but the memory of the Davis performance, four days earlier, still lingered.

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