CLASSICAL MUSIC LSO Brahms Centenary Series Barbican Hall, London

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The Independent Culture
Centenary celebrations can be dispiriting occasions when well- worn interpretations of familiar masterpieces are dusted off and repackaged to build commemorative concerts of little conviction. How different the LSO's magnificent series of eight concerts marking the 100th anniversary of the death of Brahms, at least to judge by the two I've sampled so far. Sunday 2 February's programme ranged widely over familiar and unfamiliar pieces, and Sir Colin Davis drew incandescent playing from his orchestra, bringing alive more than one passage both structurally and texturally in an entirely new way.

Opening with the Academic Festival Overture, Davis set a wise tempo: appearing perhaps a little staid, it nevertheless allowed the dark substructure of Brahms's thought to sound through, while remaining so rhythmically sprung that the music could dance when the spirit lightened. The interpretation was full of that crusty humour and passionate turbulence that we tend to see as quintessentially Brahmsian.

As it happens, that work's companion piece, the Tragic Overture, opened last Sunday's programme, and this utterly different music, majestic in its unfolding and of a deep solemnity, responded a little less readily to Sir Colin's stately tempos. There were fine things, especially in the clarity of sound that allowed Brahms's deep thematic substance to burgeon, but at points where massive musical statements become transfigured by passion and conflagration, the performance remained solid.

The broad tempos that typified these performances are clearly characteristic in general of Davis's mature consideration of Brahms's music, and both the big symphonic focal points of the two Sunday programmes I heard - the Second Piano Concerto (on 2 Feb) and the First Symphony (on 9 Feb) - were couched in terms of a spacious and deliberate unfolding. If there were times when the music needed to be more urgently driven, and the first movement of the symphony did eventually seem to drag, there was also much that combined a grand inevitability with unfussed progress. The finale of the symphony, that unorthodox and sometimes stressful journey towards hard-won triumph, was magnificently paced, for instance, and reached a most stirring conclusion, while the Piano Concerto, with a soloist in Gerhard Oppitz who seemed very much at one with Davis in matters of tempo and structure, ranged effortlessly from the Olympian and profoundly serene to the jubilant and humorous. It was also graced by Tim Hugh's exquisite delivery of the third movement's cello obbligato.

Completing these impressive programmes were performances of four of Brahms's vocal and choral works that were notable for the magnificent singing of the London Symphony Chorus. Among them, and making a very rare appearance, was the Gesang der Parzen (Song of the Fates), whose extraordinary harmonic process so impressed Anton Webern. This subtle and ultimately ethereal Goethe setting made a profound effect, as did the Alto Rhapsody, sung the same night (2 Feb) with touching sincerity and warmth of tone by Sara Mingardo. Last Sunday we heard Nanie and the marvellous Schicksalslied, in which the chorus again showed us its matchless command of colour, attack and expression.

The LSO's Brahms Centenary series continues tonight 7.30pm with a guest appearance by the SCO under Joseph Swensen, with Olaf Bar, baritone (Serenades 1 & 2, Four Serious Songs), then Thurs 13 Feb (Piano Concerto No 1, Symphony No 4) and ends Sun 16 Feb (St Anthony Variations, German Requiem). Barbican box-office: 0171-638 8891