In some ways, the good and bad aspects of this concert were attributable not so much to anything Daniel Harding achieved with the London Symphony Orchestra, but simply to the acoustical context in which the performances took place, and without casting any aspersions upon interpretations that were otherwise cogent and well adapted to the vast space of St Paul’s Cathedral and its extraordinary reverberations.
Unsurprisingly the ebb and flow of Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1960) became somewhat lost in the echoes – and it’s a work that certainly has a palpable structure. More than half a century on it continues to stand out for the intensity and integrity of its expression. In that reverberant space, the quieter aftershocks of each climax were frequently indistinguishable from the resultant echoes, but this did provide an entirely appropriate background of unremitting menace, as though acting by proxy for the lack of contrast in dynamic range inseparable from the nature of the auditorium.
That was less of a problem in the Bruckner (most probably played in Leopold Nowak's edition of 1951), continued into from the Penderecki. For all the talk about Bruckner’s music being “cathedrals in sound”, it is rare that his Symphonies are heard in such environments, and on this occasion, the elemental and cosmic dimensions of the Ninth were hauntingly realised – particularly in the way that the horns outline the fundamental notes of D minor at the beginning of the first movement, virtually harmonising with themselves in these echoes, and in the apocalyptic sounding-out of the bare open fifths at the terrifying end of it.
The unfolding of Bruckner’s music amidst such a large space gave the sense of its lying just outside of one’s grasp, and was generally more poignant as a result. Despite that, however, Harding drew from the LSO’s strings a tender, even luscious, manner with the major-key second subject, more so than anything previously hinted at in the Penderecki. The two subsequent movements were fairly swift as Harding drove the music on – though by no means rushing it – as though not wishing to be unduly hampered by the surroundings. The trio of the scherzo sounded a touch too casual in the way that he seemed to skate over its feverish course, though some contrast with the adjoining music is certainly required. Again there was no wallowing in the third-movement Adagio (Bruckner was unable to complete the finale), but not to the detriment of the funereal tones of the solemn brass passages, or to the probing character of the strings. Interestingly, however, the expansive sequences that anticipate Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia were cool rather than glowing; and after the catastrophically dissonant climax – given all due weight – the coda seemed very innocent indeed.
For the most part Harding’s was sensitive to the unique environment of the occasion, demonstrating humanity as well as grandeur. These contrasts would probably have told better elsewhere, but in every way his control over the music was admirable.