It might be a measure of Sir Colin Davis's modesty and generosity towards musical colleagues – characteristics praised by several luminaries providing tributes in the programme – that he chose to share the limelight for the bulk of his 50th anniversary concert with the London Symphony Orchestra on Sunday. However, with Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire on powerful, poetic form, the performance of Brahms' Herculean Second Piano Concerto that formed the concert's second half made a profound and lasting impression.
It was with Davis' beloved Mozart that we started, though, namely the G minor Symphony K.550. Lindsay Kemp's programme note emphasised the mercurial character of the work, citing critical reactions that have seen it as at once powerfully tragic and, quoting Schumann, full of 'Grecian lightness and grace,' and one of the hallmarks of Davis' Mozart is that it manages to capture these elements simultaneously. If his decision to retain his interpretative sovereignty in the face of the period instrument movement led to an occasional opacity of texture and lack of gut-string zing, the balance between drama and classical poise was outstanding, particularly in the first two movements.
The opening Molto allegro's first phrase was urgent and elegant, Mozart's many passages of forceful counterpoint were carefully gauged while the whole movement was paced with unerring momentum. Perhaps finest of all was a truly exquisite account of the Andante. With phrases lovingly moulded by the outstanding LSO winds, Davis coaxed some magical pianissimos out of his orchestra. The Menuetto was perhaps a little stately and the finale could have had a more visceral thrust to it but one would have to go a long way to hear as fine a modern instrument performance of this symphony.
Although he programmed a concerto for the second half, Brahms' second is the composer's great triumph in marrying the virtuoso, heroic rhetoric of the Romantic concerto to the formal requirements of the symphony. As such, the conductor and orchestra play a role every bit as central as the pianist and Freire and Davis happily demonstrated a rapport built on a shared sense of musical integrity. Neither artist is one to indulge or wallow and throughout the work's vast span they brought tautness and drive that can often be missing. Freire took a couple of minutes to get his eye in with the super-human leaps demanded in Brahms's piano part but otherwise gave a performance of breathtaking virtuosity and melting poetry, aided by Davis' firm grip on the first movement's structure, not to mention some excellent work again from the LSO.
Taken at some lick, the second movement Allegro appassionato was reclaimed as a powerful symphonic scherzo while the glorious Andante was performed with a rapt beauty that had the Barbican audience spell-bound. Freire's mastery of pianistic colour was in evidence both there and in a quicksilver account of the finale – the playful runs in thirds up the keyboard despatched with a glissando-like facility. This was Freire's debut with the LSO and the orchestra seemed every bit as impressed with his performance as the audience; it is truly an immense achievement to balance blistering power, musical intelligence and lyrical ardour so successfully in this great work.
There were no encores and no speeches or eulogies as one might expect for such a landmark occasion for so popular a conductor. Instead, we had a concert of the very highest quality, displaying a conductor's unflinching service to the composers whose music he performs and the colleagues he chooses to perform it with.
By Hugo Shirley