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The late 1920s were a good vintage for conductors. It seems no time since Charles Mackerras turned 80 and he has been followed this year by Kurt Masur, celebrating his 80th birthday at the BBC Proms, and now Colin Davis, whose 80th fell last Tuesday and is being marked by a series of concerts with the London Symphony Orchestra.
The first in the series of Sir Colin Davis at 80 was an all-Beethoven programme on Thursday. (Unlike Mackerras and Masur, Davis opted not to spend his actual birthday at work in the concert hall.) We might have expected him to choose composers with whom he has shown a special affinity during his long career – Mozart, Berlioz or Tippett, perhaps – but it is unlikely that anybody was complaining.
Over the years, Davis’s Beethoven has followed a consistent path of burgeoning maturity. Not for him the sudden re-evaluation of the composer unveiled by Bernard Haitink, a mere stripling at 78, whose Beethoven symphony cycle with the LSO last year was so invigorating. Davis’s performances have become slower, more corpulent (as if with a touch of middle-aged spread), but also deeper, wiser and more profound.
Pairing him with virtuoso pianist Evgeny Kissin was to invite a clash of opposites. Or perhaps that was the point: their performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 set Kissin’s typically steely fingered playing against a warmer background, a machine gun of rattling rhythms swathed in a grand, orchestral purple velvet. I would rather have heard Davis in tandem with another mature musical thinker such as Perahia or Brendel, but Kissin’s technical brilliance is never in question. After a couple of rounds of applause he came back to play a scintillating Beethoven contredanse as an encore.
In the “Eroica” Symphony, Davis’s gravitas reigned supreme. It is a long time since a conductor in London has performed a Beethoven symphony with such depth of sonority and majestic power. The opening movement, strongly propelled, built up a powerful head of steam and the great funeral march received a truly immense and moving performance. During Davis’s 11-year reign as principal conductor, the LSO enjoyed a golden period and it is good to hear them together again in such opulent form.
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