Daniel Harding, Principal Guest Conductor of the LSO, gave the impression of being thoroughly at ease with the orchestra and in command of these works: reciprocal music-making with a clear vision – the result being some stirring peformances that took us from birth, through life's merry-making, and then to a vision of death and redemption.
As part of the LSO's long-standing commitment to contemporary composers there was Gary Carpenter’s Fred & Ginger, inspired by a story from the film-musical “Top Hat” (1935), starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Even though there is suave on-screen chemistry, behind the scenes the two are quarrelling, and Rogers’s dress was causing no end of uncomfortable encounters for Astaire in the number ‘Cheek to Cheek’. These contrasts provide the successful basis of the work: smooth textures interrupted by flashes of jagged themes, but really needing more than the five minutes’ duration.
This account of Brahms’s Violin Concerto had more of a nod than usual to Beethoven’s: the first movement’s bold themes were treated expansively, although some of Harding’s drive at big gestures emasculated details in the orchestration (the violins dominated at the expense of the woodwinds’ clarity). Janine Jansen’s tone is not as rich as some, but her playing is compelling for its lucidity and her ability to fluctuate tempo as a partnership is impressive. The Adagio was captivating – one long breath – Jansen producing such sweet (though never syrupy) timbres, even if the show was already stolen by Nora Cismondi’s gloriously evocative oboe solo. The finale was joyful.
The second half was from birth to death and beyond. Wagner’s celebration of his wife’s birthday, Christmas and the birth of their son Siegfried. The Wagner received a straightforward and moving-along reading, but was compelling for it, and one never tires of hearing the LSO’s strings shimmer.
Richard Strauss’s take on dying, completed the concert. On his death-bed Strauss said that dying was “just as I composed it in Tod und Verklärung". This was a difficult listen: Malcolm Smith, known to many in the Barbican Hall as a long-time fixture and supporter of the LSO, had died in the morning. The music itself tells us that whilst the immediate journey to death may be difficult, the redemption afforded beyond makes the earlier trials inconsequential. So, the pulse, reflecting the failing life of an artist, seduced; and Harding was a master at controlling orchestral colour. The agonies before death were pungently real, yet then affirming and soaring strings prefaced what proved to be a glorious and awesome, peaceful close.