Having begun his 85th year barely two weeks ago, Sir Colin Davis cuts a venerable profile as he finds his way to the podium. He walks carefully and sits as he conducts. His Haydn – on this occasion the Symphony No 92 (the “Oxford”) – has lost some of its bounce and proceeds at a leisurely gait, emphasising long cantilenas rather than muscular rhythms, the brilliant finale unfolding more gracefully than in Davis’s impatient youth. The whole performance had a family atmosphere, as if he and the London Symphony Orchestra were making chamber music – as indeed they were throughout the slow movement, with the woodwinds, notably principal oboe Nora Cismondi, drawing inspiration from Davis’s fatherly glow.
But Davis still has fire in the belly, as his Nielsen First Symphony demonstrated. There have always been two sides to Davis’s musical temperament – the mystic seer in tune with Sibelius’s metaphysical landscapes, and the visceral humanitarian who epitomises, in his Beethoven and Berlioz, the struggle between everything weighing on the human spirit and everything that uplifts it. Nielsen now joins this latter fold. Last season’s performances of the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth symphonies proved that, even at Davis’s advanced age, he is still open to new repertoire and has much to bring to it. His Nielsen (the Second and Third symphonies follow in December) is a significant addition to London’s concert repertoire.
This reading of the First – a more substantial work than its generally low profile would suggest – brought back memories of Davis the firebrand. It oozed authority and gravitas, thanks partly to the LSO’s ideally meaty tone, but it also had Beethovenian dynamism, blazing impressively throughout the opening movement. Thereafter, even in the quieter depths of the Andante, the performance generated all sorts of underlying tensions that suggested big issues were at stake. The last movement, marked con fuoco, really let fly.
After the interval Davis was joined by Mitsuko Uchida, another honorary member of the LSO family (and scourge of the mundane), for a Beethoven Third Piano Concerto that fused vitality, volcanic energy and many arresting moments of stillness, even in the gleeful finale.