Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Hough, BBCSO/Davis (Barbican); LSO/Farnes (Barbican)

These two Barbican concerts--one two days before the death was announced of Sir Colin Davis on Sunday, one two days afterwards--both had links with the conductor, the LSO's concert performance of The Turn of the Screw yesterday most obviously. It was to have been conducted by Davis, and the programme, poignantly, still talked optimistically of how he 'had been much looking forward to returning to the podium for these concerts, but unfortunately he suffered a setback recently and has had to delay his return'. Details were listed for concerts well into 2014, including  those he was to conduct: performances of The Creation in January; a programme of Panufnik and Dvorak in February. The last of these emphasized the fact that Davis, as Kathryn McDowell noted in a brief,  heartfelt speech on the Barbican stage, was constantly questing, learning new repertoire. If his repertoire at the Royal Opera has featured almost nothing by Mozart for the past 15 years (Haensel und Gretel in 2008 the only exception), that in the concert hall has been a lot more adventurous.

The programme for Friday evening's concert by the BBCSO--the orchestra of which he was chief conductor from 1967 until his appointment at Covent Garden in 1970--featured the music of a composer Davis championed passionately, Michael Tippett. And it was from Davis, the programme note told us, that the composer had borrowed a phrase to describe his own Fourth Symphony: as a 'birth to death' piece (a phrase Davis had used to describe Sibelius's Seventh Symphony). Tippett's fourth, incidentally, was composed for Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Georg Solti, who Davis succeeded at Covent Garden and whose scheduled Proms performance of the Verdi Requiem in 1997 was taken over by Davis when the older conductor died suddenly. (The performance was already due to be dedicated, at Solti's suggestion, to Princess Diana, then Solti himself died a matter of days later).

Anyway, enough with musical join-the-dots. On Friday, another Davis and another Sir--Andrew, this time--showed quite what a powerful, concentrated and fiercely committed composition the Tippett is: sometimes disturbing (not least in its featuring amplified breathing, here performed live), occasionally consoling, always burning with conviction. Jonathan Lloyd's Old Racket, here being given its world premiere at the start of the concert, was not really comparable (nor, I'm sure, would Lloyd want it to be). Written for strings (plus a string quartet, tuned a semi-tone sharp), it often seemed to toy playfully with the pastoral English string-orchestra idiom, undercutting lush textures with disorientating slides in and out 'of tune', exploring evocative ostinato figures and jarring tonal effects. I couldn't quite make up my mind on first hearing, but would like to hear it again--as well as its companion piece, New Balls (geddit?). We were on safer tonal ground with Brahms's First Piano Concerto, which followed, but there was nothing safe about the playing of Stephen Hough. As I've noted before, this pianist, the producer of many fine, library-recommendation recordings, is a different animal live. And his playing here was excitingly daring, most of all in a finale launched at breakneck speed. Davis and the orchestra backed him to the hilt in a performance that swept me along, but which had few of the refinements that had so distinguished the Vienna Philharmonic's account of the Second Concerto with Bronfman earlier in the week.

There was no shortage of refinement in yesterday evening's Turn of the Screw, though, the reduced LSO forces showing quite what a high-quality orchestra this is. Richard Farnes, too rare a visitor to London for those who don't get the chance to travel up to Opera North much, conducted with brilliant precision and dramatic pacing, and it was a real pleasure to hear (and see) Britten's ingenious scoring so clearly. With a fine cast of Andrew Kennedy (Prologue, Peter Quint), Sally Matthews (Governess), Michael Clayton-Jolly (Miles), Lucy Hall (Flora), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (Mrs Grose) and Katherine Broderick (Miss Jessel), this performance, the first of two this week, will form the basis for what is likely to be a competitive CD set when it appears on the LSO Live label. And, in the resolutely unatmospheric Barbican Hall, it did a pretty good job of creating just the right creepy, chilling atmosphere.

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