October 15, 2010 11:44 pm

LSO/Davis, Barbican, London

Davis builds Janácek’s music to climaxes of solid, resonant grandeur

The marvel of Janácek’s music is how it transcends the generations. Having only embarked on his best work in his 60s, Janácek might be regarded as an old people’s composer, but the young are energised by the irrepressible vitality of his music just as the older generation admire its wise acceptance of rebirth and renewal.

Earlier this year we lost the leading Janácek expert of his generation, the conductor Charles Mackerras, who was still making music with energy undimmed a month or two before his death at the age of 84. But Colin Davis, himself now 83, has taken up the baton in his turn with no less vigorous a performance of Janácek’s Glagolitic Mass on Sunday.

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There was only one problem with this concert. It was in the wrong place: a performance of the Glagolitic Mass needs a big space in which to expand and a thundering organ to let rip at its heaven-storming solos. The Barbican has neither and the result sounded as if a huge pack of fireworks had been let off in a tiny, crowded room – too loud, too compressed, too explosive, though organist Catherine Edwards did as well as she could on the portable instrument that was provided.

Davis, happily back with the London Symphony Orchestra after several months’ absence, favours a strong and sturdy approach to Janácek. Where Mackerras used to energise every small motif in an orchestral kaleidoscope of teeming sounds, Davis builds Janácek’s music to climaxes of solid, resonant grandeur. The opening “Kyrie eleison” was mightily imposing. The closing fanfares resounded with regal splendour. With the London Symphony Chorus at its most fearless and strong soloists where they were needed in Krassimira Stoyanova’s soprano and Simon O’Neill’s tireless tenor, this was in many ways a high-quality performance – if only the hall had not sounded fit to burst.

Earlier in this Czech programme Anne-Sophie Mutter had played Dvorák’s Violin Concerto with a wealth of colours as only she knows how – the opening of the Adagio was mesmerisingly brooding – and Davis supported her with deep, rich orchestral playing that made Dvorák sound second cousin to Brahms. (

3 star rating
) www.barbican.org.uk

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