The Well-Tempered Music Guy

Simple thoughts by a simple listener on classical music

Monday, October 22, 2007

"Happy Birthday dear Colin..."

After having to cancel on a couple concerts, I finally kicked off the season with a British invasion. I got tickets to all three terrific programs that the London Symphony did at Avery Fischer this past week. Colin Davis paired with the LSO is a special thing -- a unique combination of energy -- the players are practically jumping out of their seats -- and polish. Their concerts are always thrilling without being overly "interesting" (take notes, Mr. Maazel).

The first program was on Wednesday, all Mozart -- the Piano Concerto no. 27 and a certain Requiem. As the concert was set to begin, I was surprised to see the Chorus seated at the back of the stage. I've never heard of any arrangement of any Mozart piano concertos featuring a chorus, so I thought this was weird.

They sat there quietly and listened to the concerto, which I'm sure they enjoyed as much as I did. I didn't used to think that this concerto was one of the greatest, but it really has grown on me, especially the sublime slow movement. Imogen Cooper played lightly and sensitively, and the orchestra was at it's typical best.

At the end of the Concerto, as Cooper and Davis were taking a curtain call, they quickly wheeled out a giant cake, and the chorus and orchestra sang and played "Happy Birthday" ("... dear Colin!"). A program insert informed us that Davis turns 80 next month. May he live -- and conduct! -- for decades more. I can say he looks terrific -- if I just saw him, knowing nothing else, I would guess he's in his mid 60s. And he's one of the great musicians we have, a real treasure.

I don't think any performance of the Requiem could top the one I heard John Eliot Gardiner lead a couple years ago. A flawless, thrilling, and perfectly idiomatic performance. The Davis/LSO performance was also enjoyable, with characteristic verve and richness, but far less idiomatic. The big band approach to Mozart (and in particular the Requiem) has its appeal, but it's hard to go back to that once you're accustomed to the detail and sparkling loveliness of the more "period instrument" (style) performances, such as the Gardiner or, in the "style" category, the terrific Mostly Mozart performance this summer led by Louis Langree (going from Gerry Schwartz to Langree was like going from Jeff George to Payton Manning, for you sports fans -- Mostly Mozart is no longer something you grudgingly endure to tide you over). In the LSO performance, the woodwinds, so crucial and nice here and elsewhere in Mozartland, were completely swalled up by the enthusiastic, slightly mushy strings and the unnecessarily huge -- but excellent!!! -- chorus. Plus, slower tempi bugged me in a couple of the movements, particularly the Domine Jesu. Other movements, however, were especially powerful -- the Rex Tremendae and the Confutatis and Lacrymosa, for instance.

Next, on Friday, came an all-Beethoven program, featuring the Piano Concerto no. 4 and the "Eroica" Symphony no. 3. The Fourth Concerto is one of those pieces that keeps popping up in programs I go to -- no complaints! -- but this performance blew all the rest away, and that includes the starry Levine/Barenboim pairing from last year. Although in a way, it was just different. In fact, I've never heard it played like this, on recording or in concert. The Fourth concerto is usually treated as a graceful, austere work, and this approach certainly works. Davis on Friday led the most zestful, aggressive (but never harsh) reading I've ever heard, and I was swept away. The pianist, Paul Lewis, whom I had never heard of (not that that really means anything), was terrific. Consistent with Davis, he played energetically and with much detail, and was never overly dramatic or fussy. The incredible, unparalleled slow movement was the only part fell short of the Barenboim/Levine performance, which had me in tears in that section. Nobody can milk a great Romantic passage like Barenboim.

The Eroica was also great. Not much remarkable to say about it, just that every positive adjective I've applied above to Davis/LSO performances applied in spades to this performance. The ovation was thunderous.

On Sunday came Haydn's magnificent oratorio, the Creation. I'm generally not a big fan of Haydn -- I admire his music a lot, but I just don't really enjoy most of it. A lot of his music is brilliant and witty without enough warmth and beauty -- but NOT the Creation. In fact, the Creation is one of the warmest, most joyful pieces of music ever written. The program had a great note about the genesis of the work, speficically the way strong influences from Mozart and Handel came together in Haydn to produce this work, and it really does seem a cross between the Messiah and the Magic Flute.

Anyway, the performance was big, rich, gorgeous, bracing, and just a joy to hear. The London Symphony Chorus is your prototypical showcase of the Grand British Choral Tradition -- which, after all, is the Tradition that inspired this composition in the first place. After the first big fugal chorus -- one of the sections that has Handel smiling and nodding from his special corner of heaven -- there were audible gasps scattered around the audience, uttered by music lovers catching their breath.

I really hope Davis keeps accompanying the LSO to New York for years to come, even if new hire Valery Gergiev mainly takes the reins (as good as Gergiev can occasionally be). This year's tour lived up to this great team's great tradition, but I couldn't help thinking back to one of the greatest, if not the greatest, live performance I have ever heard -- their Verdi Requiem in Fall of 2005. I still think of this concert often, yearning to hear it again and wishing I could have somehow bottled up the experience and taken it with me. I even tried emailing the LSO archivist to track down some archival or broadcast recording done of the work that season, but no dice. It will have to live on only in my memory. Sigh.

(By the way, the summer was really no excuse, but especially now that the concert season is in full swing, I'll try to fill this space more often. Even if no one is actually reading this anymore, it's sort of personally cathartic to get these thoughts down -- it helps me preserve those performances, and other thoughts, that otherwise go un-recorded).