Spare a thought for the conductor. Interspersing performances of Verdi’s Falstaff at La Scala with two LSO concerts of Sibelius, Beethoven and Mark-Anthony Turnage and
coping with a throat infection, Daniel Harding – admittedly with youth on his side – has to be fit! Of course, he knows the LSO well and the musicians respond to his direction in one accord. The two works before the interval, despite being composed some 80 years apart, ware similar in structure: one-movement spans encompassing various moods, but both – initially at any case – with a slow, atmospheric start. Harding’s beat is amazingly smooth and steady and he controlled the icy sparseness of Tapiola with astonishing assurance, if a little too much of a moulding hand. The string tremolos immediately conjured brittle ice-cold temperatures, the secure wind and brass chords effortlessly depicted enormous landscapes and the music was chiselled out of granite: awe-inspiring and impressive, if a little clinical.
Mark-Anthony Turnage’s trumpet concerto, entitled From the Wreckage, was played by its inspiration, Håkan Hardenberger, who arrived with three instruments, including flugelhorn and piccolo trumpet. Turnage’s single-movement span falls into three sections, easily distinguished by a change of instrument. The opening is sombre and eerie, with the flugelhorn gradually appearing from the orchestral soundscape. The major addition to the forces are four percussionists, two each at either side of the stage, front and back, providing ricochet drum-beats and other sounds, using them to heighten the work’s climax, the music following a trajectory that sees the soloist move to the ‘normal’ trumpet and finally – building up to the highest of the work’s solo notes – on the piccolo trumpet. Harding kept the tightest of reins on the orchestra, and Hardenberger rose magnificently to the occasion.
By contrast, the stage setting after the interval was pared down – just five double basses (to Harding’s left) and antiphonal violins. It wasn’t quite a symmetrical setting – curiously the second violins were not nearly as tightly packed as the firsts, and trailed out towards the far side of the stage, with a large gap before the violas on the conductor’s right, with the ‘modern’ timpani (but played with hard sticks) behind. As one might expect from ‘reduced’ forces, Harding’s view of Beethoven is urgent and authentically informed, with the first movement (exposition repeat observed) propelled into action with two dramatic sweeps from Harding’s left hand, matching Beethoven’s suggested metronome, although flexible enough to relax at certain points. The ‘Funeral March’ was marked by minimum vibrato, adding a distinctive aural sheen to the notes – again objective rather than subjective (but perhaps working more in favour of the music than the Sibelius). The scherzo was energetic, the trio mellifluous and the treatments of the finale’s ‘eroica’ theme characterful and rightly tumultuous in the coda. It may not have been a revelatory performance, but Harding and the responsive LSO seemed to be infected with Beethoven’s energy and spirit.
- Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (available on BBC iPlayer for seven days afterwards)
- Daniel Harding conducts the LSO on Thursday 7 February in Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Speranza, plus music by Sibelius and Beethoven (broadcast live on BBC Radio 3)
- LSO www.lso.co.uk
- Barbican www.barbican.org.uk