LSO/Davis at the Barbican; Colin Davis made a handsome job of Nielsen’s Fifth, the first in the LSO’s survey of the composer’s symphonies

10.05.09
Radu Lupu
Times Online (UK)

By Geoff Brown

According to the programme’s pen portrait, the Danish composer Carl Nielsen was “definitely the kind of man to invite to a dinner party”. Really? Judging from his Fifth Symphony, the dominant work in Colin Davis’s London Symphony Orchestra concert, he’d be smashing crockery left and right and doing bad things to a chandelier. For this is the symphony with the disruptive side-drum, spattering the first movement with military clamour and gunfire rat-a-tat-tat.

Written in the wake of the First World War, the Fifth made an arresting opening to the LSO’s survey of Nielsen’s symphonies, a welcome development from an organization often too ready to programme nothing but repertory pillars. Davis and his players seemed lit up at the prospect. As violas twiddled with their opening minor third, each woodwind entry above was forcefully, carefully sculpted, casting the first seeds of doubt over the pastoral calm. Once the threat was unleashed — the percussionist Neil Percy spattered us from three positions, one beyond the auditorium doors — Davis’s dramatic flair ensured a battle royal. He did a handsome job, too, of making the more discursive second movement approach the excitements of the first, balancing textures, building tension until the final affirmative blast. All these Nielsen performances are going to be committed to CD: good news.

Punchy music-making earlier, too, in the outer movements of Mozart’s Symphony No 34, though the symphony soon became dwarfed by Radu Lupu and the Piano Concerto No 20. Lupu sits at the keyboard like a man watching cricket, but fingers and feelings never snooze. Here were miracles of unforced delicacy, airy fingers musing and prancing with that visionary penetration and gentle kiss that marks him out as the subtlest of the piano gods.

In the first movement he offered Beethoven’s cadenza, in the third perhaps one of his own. Both in his hands rippled and flared with a quicksilver sparkle. Perhaps he delivered the finale’s theme too nonchalantly for the movement’s good, but that scarcely blotted the visionary beauties of this performance, sensitively cradled by Davis and the orchestra.