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December 13, 2011 7:59 pm
Ever-decreasing circles are the bane of any profession in later life. Not many vocations share the possibilities that conductors enjoy for extending their range in their senior years and Sir Colin Davis is the most recent to display it, taking on his first cycle of Nielsen’s ebullient symphonies at the age of 84 and conducting them with the enthusiasm of somebody half his age.
His cycle with the London Symphony Orchestra reached its close at the weekend. By all accounts the energy levels had rarely dropped, though this last concert made a deceptively tepid start. Haydn’s Symphony No. 93 set out at a lame pace and, though it was a change not to have the music rushed off its feet, this performance was too laid back by half.
Then came the Nielsen symphony. It is hard to overstate how completely the concert changed at this point. The effect was like waiting for 20 minutes for a firework to flicker into life, only for it suddenly to erupt in a dazzling blaze of light. The opening of Nielsen’s Symphony No. 3, the Sinfonia Espansiva, is one of the most invigorating ever written, and here it positively exploded: opening chords like gunshots, energy levels switched up to high, orchestra on maximum alert. This was the LSO on top form, the string ensemble in the slow movement’s evocation of the Danish countryside absolutely taut and together, though the two solo singers – Lucy Hall and Marcus Farnsworth – were sometimes overwhelmed at the back of the stage. The symphony ended grandly, its closing theme as rich and weighty as anything in Elgar – too much perhaps, but it was a mighty sound.
Running in tandem has been a cycle of Beethoven’s piano concertos with Mitsuko Uchida and this also came to its conclusion with the Piano Concerto No.5. The edifice constructed in Sir Colin’s orchestral opening was almost impossibly grand – perhaps Claudio Arrau, who played this concerto at the Barbican many years ago, might have matched it in tone – and Mitsuko Uchida strove to fill the space with playing that ranged from strong, if wiry, to mesmerisingly delicate. Not everything about their performance belonged together, but the quality was high, the scope impressively ambitious. No ever-decreasing circles allowed.
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