Mozart is one of the composers most closely associated with Sir Colin Davis, so it was highly appropriate that the main work on the schedule for his eightieth birthday concerts with the London Symphony Orchestra was the Requiem, K.626.
The piece seems to get right to the heart of the question of our humanity - life, death and our relationship with God - and at this performance, Sir Colin seemed particularly interested in the violent emotions that the work deals with. Terror, the day of wrath, the voices of a people in anguish crying out for salvation: these were the images being conjured up in a dramatic and searing, if not always poignant, performance.
Davis' approach was fresh, and although he tends towards spacious speeds, there was an urgency about the performance. His cautious but growing relationship with the period performance practice movement here reaped two particular rewards: the division of the violins highlighted some extraordinary sonic effects, not least in the spine-tingling introduction of the 'Lacrimosa', and the many occurrences of dotted rhythms to suggest impending fate, such as the 'Rex tremendae', were treated with baroque-like precision.
Otherwise, this was a relatively straightforward and loving reading of a work the conductor knows well. The London Symphony Chorus was in exceptional voice. In the 'Kyrie', their ability to weave the long contrapuntal lines into a lucid texture propelled the movement forward; the 'Dies irae' was incisive and thrilling, showing a sense of how dissonance colours the words; the adherence to the growing dynamics in the 'Rex tremendae' enhanced the dramatic impact and drew in the listener; and more than anything, we really felt the agony of the flames being evoked by the 'Confutatis'.
The male soloists were excellent. Both of them former Young Artists in Covent Garden's training programme, tenor Andrew Kennedy (whom we interviewed last week in connection with his appearance in ENO's The Magic Flute) and especially bass Darren Jeffery sang with verve and style, the latter's voice ringing breathtakingly round the Barbican in the 'Tuba mirum'. The women were also very good. Mezzo-soprano Anna Stéphany also sang with style, but Swedish soprano Marie Arnet took a while to warm up, initially reaching for the high notes rather too effortfully; her Latin pronunciation was also suspect at times. However, there were glimpses of a natural, pure Mozart voice that will probably emerge more completely over time.
Every section of the LSO truly excelled in this performance; the orchestra gave of its all in tribute to its President. The particularly poignant effect of Mozart's use of the basset horns came across wonderfully well thanks to the playing of John Stenhouse and Chi-Yu Mo. The timpanist (Nigel Thomas) integrated well into the ensemble, somehow creating a lightness that ensured the instrument never jarred or overwhelmed, and the trombone playing during 'Tuba mirum' was, quite appropriately, out of this world. In all, it was a splendid performance.
Unfortunately, the first half of the concert was not on the same high level. Mozart's final piano concerto, K.595, is another work often performed by Colin Davis over the years; I remember an especially autumnal rendition at the Proms a few years ago with Alfred Brendel as the soloist. Sadly, Mitsuko Uchida did not achieve the same standard at this concert, indeed she seemed oddly out of sorts for much of the evening. Her performance was under-projected and sounded like she was struggling to create sufficient depth of tone; she also failed to shape phrases with the poetry I have heard her employ in previous concerts (most notably, one with Jeffrey Tate and the English Chamber Orchestra at the Barbican a few years ago) and which Davis and the LSO were bringing out through the entire performance. I was quite shocked, too, to hear quite a number of fudged, incorrect or even missed notes in her performance, unusual for so technically agile a pianist. Perhaps this rather masculine concerto is not best suited to her feminine, delicate approach; perhaps she was simply not at her best. But although there were some impressive stretches, she did not get under the skin of the piece and left me cold. Davis' slow tempi and typically unobtrusive conducting may not have helped, but it really felt like the soloist was letting down the side.
However, the 'encore' provided an unexpected treat. Uchida returned to the platform, made Sir Colin sit on a chair, and started to play the Minuet from Don Giovanni on the piano. She segued into 'Happy Birthday to You', then orchestra and chorus joined in, playing and singing their hearts out in the conductor's honour while a cake with candles was brought on. It was a fitting tribute to the work Davis has done with this splendid orchestra, work which was apparent during the superb second half of this concert.
Explore more from the LSO, and find out about Colin Davis' 80th birthday gala on 3 October 2007 and video conference on 4 October, at www.lso.co.uk.