LSO/Harding Bostridge

Proem [LSO/UBS Sound Adventures commission: World premiere]
Des Knaben Wunderhorn – Revelge; Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen
Symphony No.4 in E minor, Op.98

Ian Bostridge (tenor)

London Symphony Orchestra
Daniel Harding

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 23 October, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The redeeming feature of this concert was Ian Bostridge’s singing of Britten’s “Nocturne”. Its eight linked settings (of Shelley, Tennyson, Shakespeare, et al) make exceptional demands not only on the tenor but also on soloists within the orchestra. On this occasion it received a quite superlative performance. There is ‘something of the night’ about Ian Bostridge – well, he did he study witchcraft – and there is indeed an otherworldly quality about his voice and stage presence. Above all he brings a Lieder-singer’s keen intelligence to every word, extraordinarily important in a work such as “Nocturne” where emphasis on a single word can illuminate a whole song; and Bostridge’s voice has developed significantly, blossoming and more resonant in the lower register whilst losing none of its penetrative power in the upper regions.

This reading was memorable in the way it located the emotional heart of the cycle – William Wordsworth’s “The Prelude” – and, then, in the setting of Wilfred Owen’s “The Kind Ghosts”, the steady pizzicato tread was complemented by a cor anglais solo of extraordinary eloquence from Christine Pendrill. All the orchestral soloists covered themselves in glory.

Sad therefore that the emotional temperature was much less satisfactory in the two Mahler songs, played in reverse order to the programme’s listing. Not that it made much difference since Harding had not the slightest idea of what makes this music tick. “Revelge” was absurdly fast and loud, the orchestra frequently overwhelming Bostridge, and with none of that sinister nocturnal schwung which makes the piece so memorable – after all, this Reveille is for corpses of soldiers killed in battle. By contrast, “Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen” was taken very slowly, its tender folk-like emotion coarsened. Bostridge may bring keen intelligence to what he sings; here he seemed so intent on word-painting that the vocal line was consistently mauled and pulled out of shape.

The concert opened with an unadvertised work by Luke Stoneham, part of the ongoing “Sound Adventures” series. Are audiences deemed so scared by ‘new music’ that they have to be not told about it until safely in their seats? Be this as it may, there was nothing much here to scare the punters. Stoneham (born 1966) is “as interested in the gaps between sound as the sounds themselves”. Very laudable, and indeed Proem is marked out by a series of pregnant pauses. In a brief spoken introduction the composer remarked how his prior knowledge of the rest of this concert had informed Proem, in particular the Britten. Apart from references to the sea, notably Debussy’s La mer, Proem seems to allude to the Britten of The Prince of the Pagodas.

The LSO has never – in my experience – been a ‘natural’ Brahms orchestra, even with conductors such as Kubelik and Celibidache; it may be that the musicians, from one generation to another, are simply too individualistic to produce the blend of sound which is the bedrock of good Brahms performance. Not that the orchestra got any help from Harding; although, commendably, he seated the violins antiphonally and with double basses to the left.

Otherwise this was a wretched and raucous account, having everything to do with the conductor’s podium antics and little or nothing to do with Brahms. None of the essentials – dynamics, rhythm, quality of sound – were in place. Nor was there any sense of structure or long-term planning.

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