Last night, Sir Colin Davis came to town with the Bavarian Radio Symphony—he was just about the total opposite of anything seen so far. Just over 60, he generally conducts like some overeager, young beginner: bent knees and wild gestures abounded and the score was always present. I imagine he believes that if the school of physical hijinks works for Leonard Bernstein then, surely, it will work for him too. It doesn’t.
The program was meant to have begun with Rafael Kubelik’s Four Forms for 10 solo strings, composed in 1965 and premièred here a year later. Instead we were given Berlioz’s youthful Francs-juges—written for an opera that was never completed. In the local review, the writer asked both Kubelik and Davis about this change. Davis replied “it was a difficult work,” the composer tactfully stated “it has some performance problems.”
The orchestra took the stage in traditional seating and sounded fine. The clarinets were a tad thin, but mostly quite accurate; the brass and strings were somewhat harsh, but I suspect that edge will disappear when Kubelik takes the podium this evening (cross-reference below).
It was the concerto that told the tale about Davis (and reconfirmed the status of Alicia de Larrocha as one of the world’s great pianists). His main function was being a human metronome, trying to keep up with the stellar soloist. There was much excitement, but for all of the wrong reasons.
After intermission came Dvořák‘s D Minor Seventh Symphony. (My last connection with this magnificent work was being called in to sight-read the second clarinet part with the National Arts Centre Orchestra at the very last minute.)
Davis just doesn’t understand the subtleties of this beautifully crafted work and would do well to take many walks in Bohemia to try and absorb the mood and spirit that form the subtext of the notes. The musicians tried their best, but couldn’t lift the music into the realm of great art. In the “Poco adagio,” Davis continuously shifted between four and eight-beats-per-bar, finally shooting himself in the foot towards the end when both the solo oboe and violas went sailing over the abyss of ensemble: they couldn’t fathom which beat meant what. Tellingly, when his left hand was employed “seul,” the reaction back from the players was much, much better, yet these few gestures never seemed to have been launched on purpose.
As the culmination of the festival’s concerts, Kubelik’s Má Vlast will be most interesting. Having seen so many orchestras and maestros these past few weeks and heard the Czech maestro in many other settings, I will now have the opportunity to really put him in fresh perspective. Is he the genius I believe he is, or have I been fooling myself? JWR