Haydn: Symphony No. 98; Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4; Nielsen: Symphony No. 2

Uchida, London Symphony Orchestra/Davis

Barbican, 7 December 2011 5 stars

Uchida and DavisMitsuko Uchida is one of the most distinctive pianists out there. Uchida always brings a vivid sense of feeling to her performances, and her Beethoven Piano Concerto series with Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra - which continued tonight with the radical fourth concerto - has offered no exceptions to that rule (at least in the two concerts I have seen).

The fourth is one of Beethoven's freshest works. In addition to numerous formal and gestural innovations, which include replacing the usual bombastic orchestral opening with an agreeable chordal piano theme full of developmental potential, as well as the heavy weighting towards the first movement and a pre-echo of the finale of the Op. 110 sonata's recitative in the concerto's operatic second movement, perhaps the most striking thing about the work is its almost utter relaxation. There is an unperturbed élan to the concerto which, as Lindsay Kemp points out in the notes, is just as typical of the composer as the Sturm und Drang style with which he is much more readily associated. It's a shame this side of Beethoven is not advocated more.

Just as the composition is masterful in its easeful charm, so was this performance (excusing the gendered nature of the term for a moment). The orchestra itself has rarely sounded more vividly sonorous, with for example the low strings in the first movement really standing out warmly against the lighter higher chords, and the brilliant cello drones underneath the soloist in the finale again giving a strong textural profile to the sound.

Uchida herself played with her usual forethought and vigilance, but the sound she produced was direct and beautiful. Taking her time over even the simplest material, Uchida seemed to be finding new meaning in each iteration of the distinctive short-short-short-long rhythm which dominates the whole of the long and discursive first movement, sounding tranquil notes here, questioning notes there.

The pianist kept pulling the music away from where you thought it was going, even perhaps falling out of step a little with the orchestra in the middle movement, where her emphasis was on reflection as compared to Davis' assertiveness, and again in the finale, where she was stentorian and huge; the orchestra had to struggle to keep up. But these are only minor and perhaps natural quibbles when faced with a truly collaborative and dynamic performance such as this one. Tensions in approach were the stuff of marvellous combinatorial synthesis here. Uchida's immense ovation at the end was truly deserved. It takes a lot of thought and skill to express both light lenience and profundity of idea at one at the same time, as Uchida did at so many points during this performance (and special mention must be made, even if in closing, of Uchida’s dramatically on-edge two cadenzas).

Unfortunately due to the vicissitudes of London's train network I had to listen to the opening work, Haydn's sixth ‘London’ symphony, and his 98th overall, in the Barbican's foyer. Fortunately, the Barbican is one of the few venues where a reasonable listening experience is possible in this scenario. My comments will have to be limited here, but from what I could tell Davis and the LSO's performance of this profoundly assured work was full of depth and contrast. The first movement drove along winningly. This was followed by an intensely warm slow movement, a sprightly Menuetto with wonderfully articulated shifting rhythmic accents, and a spirited finale, although I must admit the latter felt a little rote (Haydn's fault, not the performers'). The tinny compression of the speakers finally made itself felt at this point - the harpsichord solo of John Constable (the wonderful pianist of the London Sinfonietta) sounded as if it was being played on some swirling psychedelic organ!

Carl Nielsen's Symphony No. 2, the 'Four Temperaments', took up the second half. I have to say this work has always slightly paled in my mind when compared to some of Nielsen’s other music, and this sort of comparison was even more on my mind tonight, with the first half having been full of so much glorious music. The charged and exciting performance dispelled some of my concerns. My feeling is that the symphony is somewhat overburdened by its heavily signposted programme (where each movement is given to represent one of the Greek 'four temperaments'; choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic, and sanguine), and struggles at times to break free into a more enigmatic or open musical sensibility. There is also a sense of the forms being a little over reliant on distinctive and repeating musical cells.

In any case, there are many memorable instances of surprise and depth in the symphony. Tonight, particularly with the storming brass and percussion of the emotionally central third movement, we got very close to an authoritative account, at least in terms of depth of musicality. Overall, one of the strongest orchestral concerts I've seen in the past year.

By Stephen Graham

Photo: Mitsuko uchida and Colin Davis

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