Bruckner / Mozart Series LSO / Sir Colin Davis Barbican Hall, London

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The Independent Culture
One of Bruckner's pupils tells a story about a walk he and the composer took through Vienna at night. Lively dance music was coming from a house on the Schottenring, while just across the road the body of a famous cathedral architect was lying in state. "Listen!" said Bruckner. "In that house they're dancing, and over there the master lies in his coffin - that's life." He drew a pointed comparison with part of his own Third Symphony, where a sprightly polka and a solemn chorale are superimposed. "The polka represents the fun and joy of the world and the chorale represents its sadness and pain."

This vision has been described as "naive" - the inevitable adjective in any writing about Bruckner. But it isn't naive at all: the representation of life's opposites, coexisting but unreconciled - surely that takes some sophistication. No wonder the Third Symphony left such a powerful impression on the young Mahler. But the Third isn't unique. The Sixth Symphony, given a rare concert performance by Sir Colin Davis in the LSO's Bruckner/ Mozart series, is full of such telling contrasts. The finale's "second subject" alternates solemn, ecclesiastical-sounding horn phrases with something much more like an amiable country dance on the strings.

Or that's how the music reads to me: in most performances, however, solemnity wins outright. Davis's version was no exception. As soon as that second subject came in sight, on went the brake and down went the gear. Yes, it was wonderful to hear a conductor taking such trouble over phrasing in Bruckner, instead of concentrating all his attention on "the Bruckner sound" - reading some critics, you'd think there was nothing more to Bruckner than atmosphere and sumptuous tone colour. But the pace was ponderous, a modern "Wagnerian" trudge with no hint of a smile - and if those comically rococo first violin and viola figures in the first two bars aren't meant to smile, I'll eat the complete Bruckner Critical Edition.

A pity, because in many other passages Davis judged pace and expression very well, especially in the testing first movement, with its elaborate juxtapositions of four and six beats in a bar. The expansive, singing rubato in the slow movement's second subject was quite wonderful - it would have been even more so if Davis himself had managed to sing a little more quietly. And if the finale eluded him, it seems to have eluded most conductors. Strange: this is one of Bruckner's most compact and richly characterful symphonies; it could easily become one of the most popular. One day, perhaps, there will be a revelatory performance or recording, and its fortunes will change. For the moment, though, it remains the Cinderella of the cycle.

The success of the evening was Mozart's B flat Piano Concerto, K456 (No 18) with Mitsuko Uchida a glorious soloist. Somehow she manages to combine liquid legato with phrasing that speaks and sparkles in the tiniest details. Davis and the LSO were ideal accompanists. Is it really so absurd to wish for a little of this divine lightness and grace in Bruckner, too? After all, he knew and loved Mozart decades before he'd even heard a note of Wagner.

STEPHEN JOHNSON

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