Sunday 11 January 2009

Verdi, Brewer, Cargill, Davis and the LSO, but somehow not greatness

About a month ago, I had an extended rant at the expense of the London Symphony Orchestra, questioning whether they really were one of the top ensembles in the world. At the time, I wondered whether there was an issue of chemistry with their principal guest conductor Daniel Harding and whether things would be better with beloved former chief conductor, and now the orchestra's president, Sir Colin Davis at the helm. Certainly he has made some impressive recordings with them, such as the live disc of Sibelius's 3rd and 7th symphonies, which I reviewed a while back, and the Messiah. There is also an excellent live recording of Fidelio which, coincidentally, features Christine Brewer in the title role. Coincidental because she was also singing in tonight's performance of the Verdi Requiem.

Sensibly they hadn't tried to programme anything else alongside it, and as the LSO Chorus filed onto the stage, things began to look a little cramped. Then came the soloists: soprano Brewer, mezzo Karen Cargill, tenor Stuart Neill and bass John Relyea. An announcement told us that the scheduled mezzo, Larissa Diadkova, was indisposed. However, given Cargill's superb performances with Donald Runnicles in Gotterdammerung and Das Lied von der Erde, it is always a pleasure to hear her again. Clearly, though, the switch was very last minute, since there wasn't even time to get an insert printed for the programme.

Davis had some of the measure of the work's slow opening, so much so that it was difficult to hear it over the heavy breathing of the man next to me, or the sundry other noises. By and large, he seemed to take it fairly slowly, certainly this was to be no white hot, fit on one disc, reading, in the manner of Toscanini. That said, it didn't tantalise as it did the last time I heard it live (though that was the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Donald Runnicles at the opening concert of the 2005 Edinburgh Festival). The quality of the orchestra's quiet playing, though good, and certainly a cut or two above what they've been producing for Harding, wasn't breathtaking in the manner of the finest orchestras.

Things were much more impressive in the louder moments, and there was no end of drama and energy to the Dies Irae. But this too was not without its flaws: the off-stage trumpets came out and stood a few feet from the stage. In my view they should be somewhat ephemeral. In the Usher Hall, Runnicles, who always has a genius for instrumental placement, seemed to have put them somewhere back down the passageway to the dressing rooms. The effect was magical. Here the only reason they weren't on stage seemed to be so they could leave early.

However, vocally things were quite another matter, and there wasn't a weak link amongst the soloists. Brewer shone as her voice soared over the might of the orchestral forces going full tilt. Cargill was beautiful in the mezzo role and both Neill and Relyea were wonderful. That said, there wasn't quite the sparkle of chemistry between them that existed between Julia Kleiter and Thomas Quasthoff in last night's concert. Behind them, the LSO Chorus provide both weight and control in a manner that put the ageing Festival Chorus to shame.

However, while it was all good and enjoyable, it wasn't ever quite, as a whole, in danger of achieving greatness. Davis didn't quite hold the tension in the slower moments, as Giulini would have. As a result, the second half of the work, following on from the Dies Irae, was less successful. Here, too, the orchestra's relative weaknesses were more apparent. Perhaps we're spoilt with the SCO, but again I found the winds of the LSO a little lacking. Something, too, of the great romantic sweep was missing.

This is an intensely spiritual work, and should be transporting, especially in passages such as Lux aeterna and most of all Libera me. I remember Runnicles and the BBC Scottish, and, of course, Violeta Urmana sending me almost to another world. That's not to say this was in any way a bad performance, just that it could have been more.

It seems likely it's being recorded for LSO Live (there was no note in the programme to that effect, but they tend to tape most of Davis's stuff, and what with there being two performances and a fairly starry cast). When it comes out, I'm not sure I'll bother.

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