LSO/Harding – 1 – Rameau & Mahler

Hippolyte et Aricie – Dances
Symphony No.7

London Symphony Orchestra
Daniel Harding

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 22 March, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

This was the first of four concerts in which Daniel Harding will conduct the London Symphony Orchestra in sizeable chunks of standard repertoire (Berlioz, Dvořák, Mahler and Ravel) plus Berg, Boulez, Rameau and Rihm that will add up to “A Portrait” of the conductor.

This first concert fell a little short in both programming and interpretation. Coupling Rameau and Mahler was, on paper, incongruous; and so it proved – better, perhaps, to have had Rameau (a composer that is certainly a valid part of portraying Harding’s sympathies) included in the French-music concert in April (alongside Ravel and Berlioz) and to have taken that programme’s Boulez piece as a prelude to tonight’s Mahler 7, preferably without an interval. Indeed, the 25-minute gap between Rameau and Mahler was a pause too much and itself rather dwarfed the 15-minute selection of dances from “Hippolyte et Aricie” (a replacement for a Suite from the same composer’s “Les Boréades”, which was at one time the intended opener). The 10 short movements from Rameau’s opera – featuring pairs of flutes (1 doubling piccolo), oboes, bassoons and horns, with military drum, harpsichord and strings (violas sitting outside-right) – was nevertheless very stylishly played, the music being of fecund imagination, always diverting and sometimes more so.

Mahler’s still relatively under-played Seventh Symphony (an amazing statement given some others are being done to death – such as the Fifth, which Harding conducts in May) needs rather more ‘help’ than Harding gave it. ‘Song of the Night’ is sometimes appended to it. For all the excellence of the preparation here, and the LSO’s finely honed response (brass and percussion better integrated than can be the case) – and Harding’s orchestral layout was ideal (antiphonal violins, (nine) double basses positioned to the left…) – there was a distinct lack of atmosphere and narration. For all that the performance was over in a direct 75 minutes, each movement dragged before any were concluded and the whole was little more than an exercise in Technicolor swathes of sound. Harding seems to perceive the symphony as belonging to nineteenth-century Romanticism, whereas those conductors (Boulez and Kubelík, for example) who relate it to twentieth-century Modernism usually make a stronger case for one of Mahler’s most fascinating pieces. As it was, Harding’s concern for detail, subtlety and fine blend was gratifying, as was his shapely phrasing; less involving was the similar, even bland, progression of the music’s journey.

The opening movement boded well though with a flawless tenor horn solo (if played here on a euphonium) but there was little clarification of the lower strings’ ‘scrubbing’ figurations (one of the double bassists dropping his bow was apparent, though, as was one of the second violinists breaking a string!) – and so the symphony progressed, with little sense of the tragedy that can be revealed in the first two movements (off-stage cowbells in the second one being ineffective), a scherzo that scurried too much and eschewed malevolence, a second ‘Nachtmusik’ that was eloquent but not ‘balmy’ enough, and a finale that lost impetus, its dance rhythms rather too straight (certainly when heard against Bernstein’s ‘nudging’ of them). ‘Song of the Night’ would have been an inappropriate epithet here.

A postscript. While the ‘On stage this evening’ page is a welcome addition to the programme, it isn’t necessarily accurate: here co-principal trumpet Maurice Murphy was listed but wasn’t on duty (but then he was supposed to have retired the Sunday before!) and I would like to wish one of the LSO’s cellists, Francis Saunders, a very happy retirement – this was his last concert with the LSO after a nearly 40-year career: it was a nice gesture of Harding’s to pick Francis out for a handshake.

  • Daniel Harding conducts Berg (Violin Concerto, Frank Peter Zimmermann) and Dvořák (New World Symphony) on Sunday 25 March at 7.30
  • LSO
  • Barbican

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