London Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Davis, Barbican Hall, London

A fast ride in a cabriolet racer

By Rob Cowan
Thursday 09 January 2014 04:54

On the evidence of Sunday's LSO concert at the Barbican, switching from Sir Colin to Sir Andrew Davis is rather like hopping from a classy limousine to a cabriolet racer. Sir Andrew's Prokofiev Five certainly suited the weather. Others might have unfolded the opening Andante with greater spaciousness, but Davis's brightly lit development section helped clarify where Prokofiev's arguments had sprung from and where they were going.

The keenly accented scherzo became black comedy; fast and cynical with brilliant solo clarinet work from Andrew Marriner. I loved the trio's lazily quacking trumpets, the way they gradually picked up speed to join the first section's hectic return. No one would have claimed tidiness in every department, but then this wasn't that sort of performance. And there were other memorable details. I'm thinking of the desperation at the climax of the Adagio as the quiet, waltz-time introduction came screaming back, and the finale's slithery coda, a perennially shocking denouement.

Sir Andrew had opened the concert with Stravinsky's Quatre Etudes of 1930, cameo flashbacks to Petrushka that also pan forwards. The first, a primitive dance, granted valuable clarity to the timpani; the second became a tautly coiled clockwork toy on the rampage, the third a study in sullen woodwind sonorities, while the Spanish-flavoured finale was as much a study in musical stealth. Again Davis captured the distinctive flavour of each movement, and the music sounded so good. A year or so ago and the Barbican's stage would have kept much of the detail to itself, but not on Sunday, when the woodwinds really did project.

For many the concert's centrepiece will also have been its main attraction – a rare outing for Karl Goldmark's affable First Violin Concerto, played by the latest violinist to record it (for EMI), Philadelphia-born Sarah Chang. Goldmark was a Hungarian who made it big in Vienna and this particular work was, in its day, virtually as famous as the Brahms or Tchaikovsky concertos. If asked to rate it, I'd probably opt for midway between the Dvorak and the Bruch First. Goldmark's First is a loveable concerto that just occasionally doffs its hat to the halls of academe (two dry fugues seem somewhat incongruous) but Chang's spontaneous performance focused on its rustic charm and mel- odic warmth.

At the start of the work she waited patiently, her head bowed, while Davis cued a crisp orchestral opening. But once into the fray she turned on the heat. The Concerto's lyrical kernel is a slow movement which certain Old Masters performed out of context, though you'd need to be a fairly fit fiddler to tackle the outer movements' punishing passage work. Chang acquitted herself with honours: her look of triumph – and relief – as she dispatched her final flourish said it all. Davis and the LSO provided an accommodating and uncommonly vital accompaniment.

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