Perhaps this explains Sir Colin Davis's choice of the Violin Concerto and Third Symphony for the debut evening at the Barbican on Wednesday of the London Symphony Orchestra's three-week centenary festival. Though by no means giving a total picture of the composer's style, they are emblems of the basic sanity of his muse. The concerto's ideal complement would have been the Second Symphony: same key; same sunny disposition. Yet that would have been too much of a good thing. Though no less sanguine, its successor moves through all the changing scenes of life save the tragic ones, which are due to be covered in concerts to come. So it was the lyrical Third Symphony that followed the interval, its solid yet credible optimism matching the preceding human drama of solo violin against eloquent full orchestra.
And with Anne-Sophie Mutter as violinist, and Davis on the rostrum, there were indeed three figures in this relationship, scripted by Brahms, but with soloist and conductor between them playing the opening movement on a knife edge between motion and stasis. At times this felt like Bruckner's revenge, things turning so slowly it seemed they would wobble. But they didn't. Instead, basking in the lyrical uplands, Mutter preserved the essential conflict of the one against the many through a certain steely resolution of sound, and Davis's fine judgement of tempi in the tuttis. The orchestra kept pace with events, delivering polished solos from oboe and horn both here and in the genuine slow movement, also drawn expansively. The finale was more than welcome as the first patch of fast music in the work.
According to the programme, Davis hears both rage and melancholy in the Third Symphony, moods that co-exist with a sense of mystery unusual for this composer. In the amiable second movement, for example, fresh as folk song, the sense of progress ceases after the middle section as the music holds on to an enigmatic chord in broken rhythm, Brahms playing the suspense for all its worth. Something similar occurs in the finale, where a hazy chorale on brass is surrounded by sighing figures on the strings.
Given the conductor's liking for the broad approach, there was again the danger of a musical amble, averted however through a grasp both of lyric detail and its proper role in the overall scheme. In fact, Davis's reading supported his claim for the symphony as the greatest of the four. Rage and melancholy and mystery were subsumed within the broader view expressed in Brahms's motto theme, whose coded notes translate as Frei Aber Froh, or "Free but Happy". At the end, the orchestra tied up the symphony's divergent strands in a glowing radiance of serenely secure F major.
Brahms Centenary series continues to 16 Feb. Next concert: Sun. Booking: 0171-638 8891
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