London Symphony Orchestra/Kissin/Davis

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No3; Symphony No.3 'Eroica'

Barbican, 27 September 2007 3.5 stars

Evgeny Kissin - Photo ©Suzie Maeder

This concert, consisting as it did of two of Beethoven's best-loved and oft-performed works, posed one major question: how does one keep these works that have become part of the musical furniture fresh and exciting? This question was answered in contrasting ways by Evgeny Kissin and Sir Colin Davis, which made for a frustrating performance of the Third Piano Concerto in the first half and a thoroughly satisfying performance of the 'Eroica' Symphony in the second.

No-one can deny the technical brilliance of Kissin's performance but it still seems to me that in this sort of repertoire, there's a gulf between his technical virtuosity and his interpretative ideas. After Davis's tautly controlled orchestral introduction, Kissin's first entry was resolute and strong. There was immediately a taster of one of the main drawbacks of his performance though, when he played the response to the double octave statement of the theme (marked piano) with no real reduction in volume, his voicing overly weighted towards the top.

The lyrical second subject was likewise projected at forte, with no sense of contrast. This was even more noticeable on its return second time round and in the cadenza, where it was preceded by beautifully controlled pianissimo trills, only for the first note of the melody to be bashed out again. The semi-quaver passage work that leads to the big cadence as the exposition finishes was likewise played at full volume - an impressive achievement in terms of pianistic technique but it made the piece sound more like Prokofiev, and this laboured delivery was exacerbated by his nodding to the beat. Perversely, the split octaves at the centre of the development were almost inaudible. The short canon at the start of the cadenza was played as loudly as possible, pianistic strength curdling into brute force.

I made a whole page of notes of moments where I couldn't understand Kissin's interpretative choices. The Largo's opening was spoilt by perverse emphasis of the bass-line, and Kissin slowed down to go into the rippling arpeggios at that movement's centre (to such an extent that Davis had to watch like a hawk bringing in the flute and bassoon, although this didn't avoid a certain loss of ensemble). Throughout Kissin seemed just to be trying far too hard. He's a phenomenal pianist but he should let his innate musicianship do the work. It made me think slightly of Martha Argerich's recent recording of the work; her unexpected accents and robust performance style, on the surface, are not much different from Kissin's but seem to come from the music. In Kissin's hands these are effects imposed on the music from without, with no feeling of spontaneity. His playing, though, is always a marvel of virtuoso technique, and I suspect that was what brought such enthusiastic applause from the audience and the orchestra.

In contrast, Davis's reading of the 'Eroica' was a triumph for unfussy, unhurried, old-fashioned music-making. Although his tempi were relatively steady, everything maintained a playful, dance-like quality; the LSO all seemed to play out, yet crystalline clarity was retained in the textures. There were few concessions to period instrument performance practice but Davis seemed to emphasise the work as a forward looking product of Viennese Classicism rather than a Romantic beast trying to tear itself away from the chains of classical form. Paradoxically this emphasised just how revolutionary the work was, allowing the listener to hear for himself rather than emphasising didactically each of Beethoven's innovations.

Looking at my notes, in comparison to the concerto in the first half, I find myself having made only a few comments, picking out some moments which among many stuck out in my mind as particularly fine. First, I should point out that the LSO played throughout with astonishing precision, verve and evident enjoyment. The string tone was cleverly varied from full-blooded luxuriousness to an astonishingly pallid pianissimo, employed to moving effect in the Marcia Funebre at the brief episode in A flat some 40 bars before the movement's close. Throughout the double basses, too, played with a wonderful mixture of clarity and full tone so that for the first time I could really hear how they underpinned everything in the outer movements, as well as the details of their phrases in the March.

The horns were faultless in the Scherzo's trio, the woodwind constantly full-toned and characterful and everything was ably underpinned by Nigel Thomas's timpani, his hard sticks perhaps the only noticable nod towards the period instrument movement. It was a performance that flowed naturally from a majestic but light-footed account of the opening Allegro con Brio through a moving but unsentimental Marcia Funebre and joyous Scherzo into a hugely enjoyable rendition of the Finale. Here one variation grew into the next, each performed with faultless virtuosity, as the symphony grew closer to its grand conclusion. Throughout the pleasure of watching Sir Colin Davis's unforced, natural and impeccably musical conducting looked to be as great for those in the orchestra as for those in the audience. The latter reacted with justified enthusiasm and it was a touching tribute to a great conductor to see the orchestra applaud their President, who turned 80 this week, whole-heartedly, consistently refusing to stand and share the applause with him.

By Hugo Shirley