LSO with Sir Colin Davis, Barbican
Audiences react in mysterious ways. Take Daniel Barenboim's cavalier traversal of Beethoven Five at the Royal Festival Hall last Wednesday night. There they stood, stamping and cheering as if the earth had moved ... though I couldn't for the life of me fathom why. True, the finale worked up a reasonable head of steam - eventually - but the rest of the performance was disappointingly bog-standard, with hammy rubati and a level of execution from Berlin's oldest orchestra that hardly compared with Britain's best.
The Berlin Staatskapelle has a fair pedigree and Barenboim's work with them has run to opera productions and previous presentations of Beethoven symphonies, but on this showing, they're no match for the Berlin Symphony, let alone the Philharmonic.
The problem with Barenboim's Beethoven is that it never settles to a definite identity: even the one-time spectre of Furtwangler has wandered off elsewhere, and tempo relations were rarely convincing. The First Symphony that opened the programme was even less well played - except, again, in the finale, where Barenboim lingered pensively over the Adagio then launched into a genuinely witty Allegro. A handful of similarly perceptive episodes made me wish that he had passed on the idea of conducting the Fourth Piano Concerto from the keyboard and spent more time honing his view of the symphonies.
The Concerto itself was an uncomfortable amalgam of gestures, with awkward pauses and a tendency to lean heavily on the first beat of a phrase. It was very much a conductor's style of playing, big and unsubtle - a bit like Bernstein's or Walter's, and heard at its best in the first-movement cadenza.
The slow movement operated mostly at two different tempos, one for the soloist and one for the pianist - and by the time he reached the finale, Barenboim seemed jaded. My guess is that the very act of co-ordinating his two roles was causing him both mental and physical strain. Nowadays, Barenboim is more a conductor-pianist than a pianist-conductor, and the resulting loss in pianistic finesse is noticeable. There is a great musician locked in there who still needs space and time to grow. Perhaps he is simply doing too much.
Comparing Barenboim's Fifth with Sir Colin Davis's LSO Eroica at the Barbican the following night underlined the value of patient timing - though I preferred Barenboim's orchestral layout, where first and second violins were divided left and right of the rostrum. To take just one example from Davis's performance, there is that critical pause for breath between the flurry of activity that opens the Eroica's finale and the plucked theme that follows. Davis gauged the humour of the passage to perfection, and his characterisation of each variation thereafter displayed a discernible sense of colour.
The first movement (with repeat) had a patrician air but kept on the move; the Funeral March was generously expressive, and the Scherzo vigorous but lightweight. "You've taken hardly any notes," remarked a colleague.
The truth is that Davis invariably takes Beethoven's lead; nothing is forced, or distorted, or stressed out of context. Neither are the heavens stormed, but then Davis is among the most urbane of Beethovenians. So there is really nothing more to say, save for reiterating the strengths of what is perhaps Beethoven's greatest symphony.
The concert opened to a luxuriant account of Mendelssohn's Scottish Symphony, with comfortable reportage of the first movement's changing weathers but without its repeat. Only the Scherzo seemed momentarily to catch the LSO off its guard (executive precision in this movement is extremely rare), but the rest offered happy confirmation of the Orchestra's current high executive standards.Reuse content