What more appropriate way to end a hot, windless Bank Holiday Monday, begun with breakfast in Vienna, off the U-Bahn 4 from Heiligenstadt, than a London Prom and Beethoven's 'Pastoral' Symphony? In a reading of simple honesty, non-festooned and free of mannerism, the jewel of this performance was the second movement, 'Scene by the Brook', Daniel Harding water-colouring a landscape of elevated poetic detail and chamber-discursive dialogue. With antiphonal violins, and just four double basses raised high at the back, the Orchestre de Paris's characterful, mellifluous woodwind section was in aristocratically cultured form. Here was a world at once tangible and fantastical, of shy glances and mingled woodland breaths, of rutted tracks and weeping willows, the swirl and currents of the Donau, its carp, trout and salmon, a pebble's throw away.
This mood was maintained still more so in the 'Shepherd's Song' of the Finale, a sonorously rooted thanksgiving cumulatively sad and lingering, a man's inner feelings drawn simple and raw, in charcoal with a touch of sepia at nightfall. The 'Storm', hard-stick timpani in rattling attack, fork-lightning piccolo streaking the sky, scorched the Hall. The rusticity of the 'Merry Gathering', reinforced in the ranz des vaches of the Finale, echoed to the horns in hunting cry, brazen and bucolic, their one error (like the mid-range strings briefly in the first movement) no more than transiently mortal – to carry the music, to ride the moment, mattering patently more than clinical exactness.
Years ago Reginald Smith Brindle wrote an essay on the first movement, tracing its cellular patterns to “primitive” repetitive rhythmic structures. Similarly, Harding's take on the work has always been about re-discovery, about clarifying an old friend with fresh eyes. For him the outer movements are something “incredibly patient … seeming so much like one breath.” He reminds us how, 'Emperor'-like, the work grows “out of three [major] chords, the building blocks of music harmonically”, the minor is scarcely to be found. Beethoven's deafness – “losing one's ability to hear the whole spectrum”, his “screeching high notes and growling lower ones, hearing nothing at all, then painfully loud” – is a pervasive touchstone. “The muted horn at the very end isn't a beautiful reminiscence, it's Beethoven saying 'this is what I hear, a distortion'.”
More than once the balance, dynamics and swells of this account shuddered one out of complacency. The open-fifth drones, a note here and there given added emphasis, a crescendo where there is none, incisively delineated monochromes, suddenly sensuous bass lines, rasping edginess, Beethoven's love affair with the bassoon, with the beauteous kiss of a 'Leonora' flute scale … Wondrous, one for the memory.
Following a graciously judged Genoveva Overture – structurally strong, the strings silkily blended, the horns placed, the Mendelssohnian overtones elegantly touched, “a tale of injured and restored innocence” – Jörg Widmann's poly-stylistic 2014 Babylon Suite, a James Joyce of a score, witnessed Harding and his virtuoso musicians in furious form (they undertook the French premiere in 2017), committed to every twist, challenge and vocal interjection.
Written for massive forces (nearly a hundred players), including quadruple woodwind and brass, a multi-cultural percussion battery and accordion, the 2012 opera from which the music is drawn traverses images of deluge, hell and Babylonian orgy. On the one hand it's about “singing phalluses and vulvas ... sexuality [as] a natural form of spirituality”, the conflict between co-existing but incompatible world views and cultures, tenderness and brutality, clash and opposition as a creative, dramatic tool. On the other, it's about tensioned, multi layered vistas – everything from an eerie opening to hymn-like close, dreams to damnation, marches, chorales, folksongs, Bavarian Oktoberfest to 'Scarborough Fair' to Jewish lament, grotesqueries to glory. We are told about “a symbolic rebirth of humankind on a new existential plane.”
Harding speaks of “great darkness, great violence, optimism, love music, Superman Two stuff”; of a composer “utterly shameless” in his use of gesture, quotation and parody – from Mahler and Ives, Richard Strauss, to film studio. “Shocking on first listening but always brilliantly done.” References familiar yet de-contextualised parade by. Solos and water-gardens, glimpses of ecstasy and drunken delirium, fractured memories half-caught, Munich beer-taverns, goose-stepping marches, Hebraic exoticisms, snatches of waltzes off-kilter, surges gathering steam, hunters pursuing the hunted, orgasmic stars. Mind and body in confrontational overdrive.
Widmann's imagination, his exuberance, is phenomenal, his orchestral palette extravagantly masterly. The universe, the experience, he conveys is all things. Now very beautiful. Now crude and simplistic, contrived, even disjointed – suite-wise, some passages possibly gelling better theatrically than in the concert room. Harding's delivery – at thirty-three minutes slightly longer than the prescribed thirty of the published score – was a triumph of spectacle and precision. And the Orchestre de Paris, corporately and individually, rose staggeringly to the heights.
Along Kensington Gore the crowds went. Some walked faster than others. Most headed for the buses. A few hailed taxis. Others strolled, arm-in-arm. Everywhere, rhythmically proliferated, intricately woven, a Babel of tongues and chaos, Widmann's “linguistic confusion” before us in every jostle and reflection. Yet to each, wherever their place, whatever their formal discord, their harmonious exchanges, the same pulse of life, of hearts and hopes meeting, dividing, separating, living, loving, dying, of thoughts and intensities young as the hour, old as a first gasp.
A provocative evening.
- Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days afterwards)
- BBC Proms www.bbc.co.uk/proms
- Daniel Harding flying high
- Orchestre de Paris records Sibelius with Paavo Järvi