Beethoven: Emperor Concerto; Brahms: Symphony No. 3

LSO, Paul Lewis/Davis

Barbican, 20 June 2009 4 stars

Paul LewisPaul Lewis underlined his status as a discerning Beethovenian at the Barbican this week with a searching account of the Emperor Concerto. With Colin Davis drawing sturdy and responsive playing from the LSO, Lewis and the conductor juggled a stately grandeur with a significant degree of shade in the rhythmic and dynamic aspects to produce an interpretation that was generally full of vitality.

That grandeur was securely in place from the off, with Lewis' stentorian phrases being soberly apostrophised by Davis and the orchestra. The symbiosis of the partnership became clear in the exchanges of theme and support around the first subject group, with every hint of rubato from Lewis being matched and clarified by Davis. At times however Lewis' playing swerved too much, and his rhythmic security felt under threat on more than one occasion. A touch more fluidity and brightness in the exposition were needed from the pianist.

As the development gathered steam though this searching quality, where each phrase was wrought as a struggle, became a virtue. The interpretation really took off here, and Davis was soon whipping the band up into a real fervour. The pianist and conductor drew out the final chords before the recapitulation with a lusty relish, and the return of the themes felt momentous.

The hymn-like theme of the slow movement was given with just the right mixture of gravity and tranquillity by the orchestra, Bernstein's 'Somewhere' (which reshapes some of the motives) but impinging more on a sublime strain of thought. Lewis responded with spacious and deliberate consideration of the evolving material, before the whole ensemble slid down a semitone for a dead-on-target transition into the pageantry of the finale. Here as earlier the performers made much of the revelling, cajoling aspect of the material. Those furious downbeats and syncopations on the main theme were given particular emphasis by the timpanist Nigel Thomas.

Lewis was again probing. He ensured that each episode not only enhanced the security of the surrounding thematic statements, but also thwarted them at the same time. Apart from a recurrent lack of weight in the left hand leading to some imbalance in his playing, Lewis shone throughout the concerto. His highly idiosyncratic interpretation was matched every step of the way by an enthusiastic Colin Davis.

An enthusiastic Colin Davis was what we got in the second half too. The bolstered orchestra swelled into view with a fiery exposition in the first movement of Brahms' remarkable third symphony. The emphasis was once again on broad rubato and expressive leaps in intensity here, though these were not given without a sensitivity to the subtle modulations in harmony and form within the movement. The strings were on fine form throughout the evening but here they really excelled, pushing and pulling at each other at points, thrusting together at others, ultimately leading the charge through impassion to the quiescent conclusion.

The rest of the ensemble shone in the middle two intermezzi. The range of emotion and technique Brahms describes in these movements is astonishing, but the players were generally a fine match for the fluid phrasings and overlapping motives of the music. The clarinet and bassoon theme in the second movement was given with an ease of expression that was maintained into the swapping around of the seductive theme in the third. The unusual harmonic rhythm of these phrases was made to sound fluid, whilst Davis' overall weighting of the material made the performance flow quite naturally into and out of stability. The absence of a scherzo felt like a virtue, with the finale leaping out of the blocks with an irrepressible sense of vigour. All the calm of the middle movements was swept away in playing of great drama; once again Davis built up an impressive head-of-steam, and the strings and brass in particular glowed with ardour at each pivot and twist of the score. But at times the power of the playing felt a little undercut by the very deliberate contrasts in volume and weight that Davis kept asserting. That zeal for characterful and considered playing however meant that the twilight conclusion felt thoroughly apt, for once.

By Stephen Graham

Photo Credits: Paul Lewis by Tom Caldwell

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