Among the LSO’s many attributes is their bold and rich sound, those enormous waves of music that pin you to your seat at the very back of the Barbican Centre. However, last night’s performance of Haydn’s 99th Symphony benefitted from a very different sound: the reduced orchestra which appeared on stage would have been far more familiar to Haydn the court music director than the awesome power of today’s symphony orchestras. The result was a gloriously authentic performance; the strings demonstrated sparkling clarity and the flexibility of the smaller group allowed conductor Sir Colin Davis to create the sense of drama crucial to the interpretation of Haydn’s music. The lively final movement was particularly enjoyable for its daring tempo; this created the tempestuous urgency merely hinted at in more sedate performances.
The 99th Symphony was written in 1793, months after the young Beethoven had arrived in Vienna to study with its composer. The 22 year old was not enamoured of his famous teacher, spending his time dazzling the nobility with his virtuosic piano skills rather than completing Haydn’s dry exercises. The Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major was premiered by the composer in 1795 to enormous applause and helped to cement the composer’s reputation. One can well understand the excitement felt by that first Viennese audience upon hearing Mitsuko Uchida’s own performance of the work. Although the Concerto could not be said to represent the most innovative of Beethoven’s compositions, Uchida brought her own blend of enormous energy, obvious enjoyment and communicative playing to the piece, turning its unadventurous form into the perfect vehicle for her exuberant musical expression. Uchida brings the piano to life, creating a capricious creature which revels in its powerful bass and takes daredevil pleasure in the sheer speed at which it can play. This mischievous side contrasted with the ethereal stillness Uchida is capable of bring to the music, both combining in a particularly lovely reading of the spacious second movement. For the witty finale, Davis again chose an appropriately fiery tempo, Uchida’s spirited attack matching that of her old friend and demonstrating the harmony which makes the pair ideal musical collaborators.
Unlike Beethoven the child prodigy, Carl Nielsen received his musical education form playing the fiddle in his local folk band before joining the Army at fourteen and learning any instrument available to him in the military bands. By the time of his entry into the Copenhagen Conservatoire, the nineteen year old Nielsen was thoroughly steeped in the music of his native Denmark as well as being fascinated by progressive composers such as Schoenberg and Hindemith. In addition to folk music, his writing is redolent of the harsh Scandinavian landscape: still chords in distant harmonies create a bleakly cold atmosphere, while tuned percussion captures the ear in the same way that falling snowflakes capture the light. The Sinfonia Semplice was his sixth and last symphony, written in 1925 at the seaside resort of Skagen. The piece has a nostalgic, idyllic surface, however underneath there are strong currents of dissonance and interjection which suggest that all is not as it seems. This duality of nature requires the orchestra to make snap changes of mood, another thing at which the flexible LSO excels.
There are folk elements present throughout the symphony, most notably the bassoon solo in the opening of the fourth movement, played superbly by Bram Van Sambeek, however the piece never loses its acerbic edge, captured marvellously by the sarcastic brass section. Nielsen often divides his orchestra into chamber groups, keeping each section distinct from the others in a manner not dissimilar to Haydn’s much earlier techniques. Davis’ pairing of Haydn and Nielsen symphonies continues in the autumn: the parallels between these two witty and playful composers go much deeper than one would first think.