With his Piano Concerto No. 4 in G, the centerpiece in the concert with the London Symphony Orchestra on Sunday, Beethoven took the classical concerto format he had inherited into uncharted waters. The work opens with a series of piano chords, which the orchestra takes up, develops and kneads into riveting thematic material before the soloist returns. In addition to this role reversal between soloist and orchestra, the work also explores new dimensions in their relationship.
Mitsuko Uchida put all she had into the performance, savouring every phrase and taking special care to get the opening chords right. If there was any doubt about the strain of her effort, her grimacing throughout would cast it aside. Her treatment of the material was sensitive and insightful. I could ask of Ms. Uchida more wit, but that would be churlish after all she’s done.
While the work provided plenty of space for Ms. Uchida and the LSO under Sir Colin Davis to engage in banter and discourse, their near-perfect coordination, as in lockstep marching, re-defined rapport. It was as if they were old friends or a long-married couple, with each finishing the other’s sentences or signalling the next move with a mere glance at each other.
The second movement was particularly magical. Beethoven biographer Adolf Bernhard Marx and Franz Liszt both suggested that this movement depicted Orpheus taming the Furies at the gates of Hades. In Ms. Uchida’s hands, the piano sounded more like it was placating a rather grumpy orchestra, slowly comforting it to tranquility. The strings began with long, plaintive statements of some gravity, like a husband coming home after a rough day in the office. The piano, the pliant wife, meekly responded with short and hushed phrases which became longer and bolder, as the orchestra retreated into shorter and shorter passages.
Without a break, soloist and orchestra launched into the jolly final movement, hand in hand scaling new heights in extensive development of the material, supported by trumpets and drums. Would it be an over-simplification to liken this concerto to the process of courting – first the tentative and gentle moves, then some emotional tussle, and finally celebration in union?
Earlier in the evening, Sir Colin and the LSO had opened the concert with Haydn’s Symphony no. 98 in B flat major. At 84, Sir Colin conducted from a high chair, but there was no lack of energy on his part, although with LSO he would have hardly needed to exert himself.
Sir Colin must have conducted this symphony countless times. Yet there was still a sense of freshness and vitality about the LSO’s performance. The naughty bits were not lost on them either – the national anthem briefly appearing in the Adagio, for example, or the violin and harpsichord obbligato almost taking over at the end of the final movement.
There have been suggestions that the mood of the symphony, the last of the first batch of six “London” symphonies, is reflective of Haydn’s sadness at the loss of Mozart, who died at about the time he completed the work. This wasn’t obvious in the LSO’s interpretation. That is not to say that Sir Colin was frivolous or irreverent; in fact, he played it straight down the middle, as it were, most of the time. He clearly thought it was good music and gave it proper treatment.
The programme concluded with Carl Nielsen's Second Symphony, also called The Four Temperaments. Although Nielsen acknowledged that inspiration for the work came from a painting he had seen in an inn about the four humours that affect behaviour, he was at pains to point out that it was not programmatic music.
The LSO displayed a strong sense of movement throughout, coaxed along by Sir Colin with an even and steady hand. The Allegro collerico first movement was spirited, even violent at points. The second, Allegro comodo e flemmatico, was short and languid. Did I detect traces of the popular tune “Que Sera Sera” here? The Andante malinconico was anguished, but nothing as tormented as what one might find in Mahler.
The final movement, Allegro sanguineo, was a tour de force of the brass section, blasting away in wild abandon, totally cowing the strings. As Nielsen said himself, he tried to “evoke the basic character of a person who storms thoughtlessly on in the belief that the whole world belongs to him and that roast pigeons fly into his mouth without work and care”.
No wonder the LSO stands tall as an orchestra of versatility and refinement. Under Sir Colin on Sunday, it shone beyond doubt, helped in no small measure by the extraordinary Mitsuko Uchida.