Not parading their Austro-German pedigree

LSO/Davis | Barbican Hall, London
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The Independent Culture

Sanderling, Masur, Mackerras, Davis: the London orchestras are launching their seasons with an array of their most senior conductors. They're making the city's classical music feel rooted in the whole spread of European traditions. When people used to go on about the lack of a "world class" orchestra, they ignored the essential London character of diversity in depth, which features as much within the cultural shadings of the Continent as on a global scale. Nowhere else can match it.

Sanderling, Masur, Mackerras, Davis: the London orchestras are launching their seasons with an array of their most senior conductors. They're making the city's classical music feel rooted in the whole spread of European traditions. When people used to go on about the lack of a "world class" orchestra, they ignored the essential London character of diversity in depth, which features as much within the cultural shadings of the Continent as on a global scale. Nowhere else can match it.

While some orchestras are parading their Austro-German pedigree, the LSO has taken a different tack all year. It's too glib to talk of Sir Colin Davis as a Berlioz specialist, as he resumes his cycle of the composer's major works. His performances of Debussy in concert or Saint-Saëns in the opera house have long shown flair for a full range of French idioms. It's striking, and not always recognised, that as his Beethoven grew more ponderous with the years, his way with the Parisian repertoire has done the opposite.

Wednesday brought him back to Berlioz's two most familiar pieces, which he has been conducting through four decades. The Symphonie fantastique, Berlioz's extraordinary youthful hybrid of Romantic flamboyance and classical refinement, now encompasses both these extremes much more comfortably. Listen to Davis phrasing the symphony's main, recurring melody at its first appearance: direct, unfussy, yet fluid and eloquent. Then see how the experience of the music pivots dramatically around its despairing central climax towards the ghoulish evocations of the final stages. Davis here let the music have its head without inhibition, and with more pace, energy and colour than ever.

With Harold en Italie, the sense of irresistibly cumulative power was even greater, from the sombre tread of the opening through the poetic visions of solitude to the rugged peaks and frantic runaway endings of the outer movements. The typical Davis rhythmic vitality was as strong as always, only it now worked at full tilt and demanded an astonishing degree of focus and virtuosity from the players (you can't single any out, you'd have to name entire wind sections).

Harold's solo viola part is a strange one: in movement after movement it starts assertively only to fade into the bigger texture, the very embodiment of the Byronic individual caught up and swept away by the mass. Just the thing for Yuri Bashmet, who can make the melodic line speak out like a poet and then catch the sense of disintegration as wild orchestral sounds push him aside. This was one of the most stirring and satisfying experiences of the cycle and it is a pity that it won't be appearing on the LSO's own-label recordings being made at these concerts.

The Symphonie fantastique will, at least if it survives the interruptions by announcements from the foyer that forced Davis to stop the music in midstream. Barbican director John Tusa could be seen bustling out to investigate, but how come a recording-session silence didn't happen in the first place?

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