LSO/Sir Colin Davis

Berlioz: Overture King Lear; Les nuits d'été; Harold en Italie

Barbican Hall, 12 December 2007 4 stars

Sir Colin DavisAfter the hotchpotch of Billy Budd with Daniel Harding at the weekend, it was good to see the London Symphony Orchestra back on form under their President, Sir Colin Davis, in an all-Berlioz programme.

So natural is the relationship between the orchestra and their former Principal Conductor that there is no panic and no histrionics about their performances together; they evidently communicate well in rehearsal and get on with the job during the performance.

To have the team returning to Berlioz at this concert after their previous cycles of the composer's music was particularly special. Sir Colin's affinity with the French composer's often extraordinary music has always been close and intense, and the benefits of his knowledge of the three scores performed here were always apparent.

It was refreshing to start the concert with the King Lear Overture rather than one of the more hackneyed examples of the genre from the composer's output. This performance demonstrated why Davis' interpretations of Berlioz's music are so exemplary: rather than try to find Schenkerian, Germanic 'coherence' in it, Sir Colin revelled in the overture's maverick character and disparate elements. It is often forgotten that 'programme music' is not music written to illustrate a verbal text but rather a piece for which a written text has been provided to describe the musical processes in a way that anyone can understand. Therefore, even when Berlioz wrote in his diary that certain sections describe certain events in Shakespeare's play, his claim should not be taken at face value. One can't look to the 'programme' for coherence or criticise the performance of the piece for not being coherent with the text when the music was written before the words.

The LSO took a while to warm up in this performance, which was exciting but untidy at times. For instance, Sir Colin was eager to bring out the rhapsodic quality of the theme which pervades the first section by pulling the time around a little to shape it, rather like the lower string recitative sections of the fourth movement of Beethoven's Ninth and the openings of Lizst's Dante Symphony and Schubert's Eighth. But the LSO strings were not alert to the conductor's gestures and could not maintain synchronicity. Nevertheless, it was remarkable how Davis achieved Berlioz's prescribed dynamic contrasts between pianississimo and fortissimo in the introduction and the lavish, well-balanced sound of the full orchestra in the Allegro was thrilling (with outstanding timpani and horns).

Completing the first half of the concert was the composer's song cycle Les nuits d'été. The choice of soprano Anne Schwanewilms was controversial and not entirely appropriate. These six songs were written with a lower voice in mind, and even when a female singer uses the composer's higher transpositions of the second and third songs, the cycle lies much better for a mezzo-soprano than it does for a soprano (as I also found earlier in the year when Felicity Lott performed it at the Queen Elizabeth Hall). Going down to an E or D just above middle C is not comfortable for a soprano like Schwanewilms, whose voice soars at the top but loses tone at the bottom, a problem evident in nearly all of these songs.

The lightness and wit with which she attacked 'Villanelle' brought out the best of the song, and it helped that she paid attention to the specific markings regarding ritenuti in the second and third verses. The middle four songs were all sung with serenity and a golden tone in the higher passages (such as the word 'étoilée' in 'Le spectre de la rose' and 'reviens' in 'Absence'), though I felt Schwanewilms' intonation was wobbly in each of the three returns of 'bien-aimée' in 'Absence'. But the singer's reticence to attack the text and her less than idiomatic command of French threatened to blur the four songs together at times. The beauty of her sound and musicality got her through the performance, but I feel Schwanewilms will be on more comfortable ground when she returns to Covent Garden for Chrysothemis and Elsa next season.

Tabea Zimmermann

However, the magnificent reading of Harold en Italie in the second half of the concert is what really made it worth the journey. Although I have heard it many times in concert and on record as well as studying it at university, I have never before experienced such a convincing performance of the piece. The LSO performed it as part of their Berlioz commemorations in 2003 during the first half of a concert which also contained the Symphonie Fantastique, but it paled next to the latter's brilliance. In this concert, the orchestra, conductor and viola soloist (Tabea Zimmermann as before) had the piece much more firmly in their fingers and it was a sheer pleasure to witness the resulting performance.

Again, I feel less inclined to interpret the music through the written text about Childe Harold's Pilgrimage than David Cairns does in his programme note. While we might listen to the work with the relationship of the solo viola part to Bryon's Harold in mind, Berlioz's own interest must have been in the structure of the work. Though ostensibly his 'Second Symphony', Berlioz's Harold en Italie began life as a commission from Paganini for a concerto. Instead, Berlioz wrote a sort of anti-concerto in which the concertante element is unconventional, often incorporating the viola into the orchestral texture rather than writing a Mozartian concerto in which the form is created by a contrast of textures.

That Zimmermann embraced this fact was one of the main reasons why this performance was so successful. Sitting on a chair unostentatiously when she wasn't playing and coming to the front of the stage when she was playing a prominent solo, Zimmermann seemed at ease with the unusual demands of the work. Her secure intonation, beautiful deep tone and nice long bows helped to make this a near-ideal rendition.

The LSO was on form from start to finish and was much more responsive to Davis' baton than in the overture, whether in the opening gesture in the low strings or the final movement's memorable trombone and tuba triplet theme, both requiring a flexibility of timing which never fazed the players. The orchestra's phenomenal ability should not be taken for granted: a mere glance at the score shows the technical complexity facing the musicians, yet they all played with a virtuosity which puts them amongst the world's finest. The performance of the first movement ran the gamut of emotions, the second had dynamic fluidity and the third embraced its jaunty Italian origins. But it was the 'Brigands' Orgy' of the fourth movement which truly impressed: Davis made the recapitulation of earlier themes startling, leading us in their accumulation to an exciting finish.

By Dominic McHugh

Read recent concert reviews, including Daniel Harding's performance of Billy Budd with the LSO, here.