London Symphony Orchestra/ Davis, Barbican Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

At first glance this programme of Mozart and Nielsen – his volcanic 5th Symphony – looked to be one of contrast more than progression, but in Sir Colin Davis’ choice of Mozart the appetite here was definitely for drama.

Bright, martial fanfares in C major announced Symphony No.34 and Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra were off in time honoured fashion exercising the sinews of the music, pointing up the contrasts, and duly giving us a real jolt with the minor key modulation into the development.

Davis’ eyebrow conducting now expresses his delight at Mozart’s enduring charms and the second movement Andante almost had him dancing a minuet. I’m not sure that the accenting was always in keeping – those heavy nudges bordered on inelegant. But the exuberance was undimmed. So too the air of wisdom with Davis, a kind of Sarastro, presiding.

But then there were two high priests on stage for the concerto – Mozart’s furtive and darkly dramatic Piano Concerto No.20 in D minor. The elusive and extraordinary Radu Lupu was back in his upright chair, the angle of his body so relaxed as to be almost horizontal. His contact with the keyboard is uniquely his own, every note and chord carefully weighted lest it distort the sound in any untoward fashion. But then he’ll lean into a phrase or point up a quirky appoggiatura or stealthily articulate the left hand to screw up tension and you’ll wonder what just happened. He’s one of the very few pianists of whom one can use the words “mysterious” and “visionary”. It felt a bit like his own private performance but it was riveting nonetheless.

And so was the spectacle of 82-year old Davis harnessing the elemental power of Carl Nielsen’s obsessive 5th Symphony. Forget old dogs and new tricks, clearly it’s never too late to embark upon a new repertoire strand and Davis plans to perform and record all the Nielsen symphonies for LSO Live. And this was an auspicious start as he weathered the forces of antagonism and strove to consume Neil Percy’s renegade side drum before it consumed him.

But it was the second movement’s fugue from hell – or is that dance of death? – that had us all, not least Andrew Marriner’s shrieking first clarinet, running for cover. Until, that is, Davis turned Prospero and with a little help from Nielsen duly converted the fury into brassy affirmation. I reckon the maestro shed 40 years during this performance.

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