Surprise Haydn Eclipses Rivals – 27 March

Apollon musagète
Piano Concerto No.18 in B flat, K456
Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op 67

Leif Ove Andsnes (piano)

Die Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen
Daniel Harding

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 27 March, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Something of a regular visitor now to these shores, in no small measure to do with its charismatic young British conductor Daniel Harding (and watch for news shortly of a future visit in the not-too-distant future), the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie played the first of two British concerts last night. The Barbican Hall concert (repeated tonight at Birmingham Symphony Hall) was very well attended by an extremely warm and receptive audience, which engendered the young players under Harding’s exhausting baton into lithe and stylish performances of Stravinsky, Mozart (with Haydn as a choice encore) and Beethoven.

Harding certainly cuts a dash, belying his small stature. He is all swoops and dives in his conducting technique (even more so than quondam mentor Sir Simon Rattle), with his arms seemingly growing with each swoop (does anyone remember the classic Eric Morecambe sketches where his arms grew and grew?), an effect exacerbated not only by his long-fingered hands, but also by the fact that his frock-coat arms rode up to beyond the cuffs of his crisp white shirt.Yet I suspect that Sir Adrian Boult would have apoplexy if he could see Harding, as at the end of each piece Harding was exhausted and lathered in sweat.Compared to urbane Leif Ove Andsnes, the soloist in the Mozart concerto – who, Lupu-like, sits rather impassively at the keyboard, letting his fingertips do the talking, as it were – Harding puts far too much effort into his conducting.I wonder if time will tell both for him, his orchestra and audience that less can be more?

Not that I can complain about the performances.The Stravinsky, starting the concert with ice-cool composure, was all beautifully clear lines and well-prepared balances.Harding, like Rattle, generally favours antiphonal violins and in the string-only Stravinsky he placed the three double basses at the back, with cellos between one o’clock and two o’clock and violas outside right.For the Mozart and Beethoven the double basses moved to the left and cellos changed to between ten and eleven o’clock.Natural trumpets and hard sticks for the timpani were the order of the day in the Beethoven, although authenticity was not taken as far as a complete ban on vibrato.

Andsnes too was quite authentic in his unassuming left-hand reiteration of the opening theme in the tutti at the start of the Mozart. This is something of a rarity on the concert platform (although – somewhat like the proverbial London omnibus – Robert Levin played it not so many weeks ago with the OAE!) and it was nice to hear what I confess was something quite new to me. Rather experimental for Mozart too, which is perhaps why it is not up there with his most regularly played concerti, and with some nice harmonic and structural novelties which Harding and Andsnes delighted in showing us.

With the extremely appreciative acclamation we got an encore – the Finale to Haydn’s Piano Concerto in D, Hob.XVIII.11 (intriguingly from around the same year as Mozart’s K456, c.1784) – which was attacked with such vigour and élan that it left the Mozart out in the cold.Without doubt this four minutes worth was the highlight of the concert, and paired in such stark (and surprising) contrast, Haydn won hands down on Mozart. Andsnes, Harding and the players all seemed to relish the impetuosity and invention. Those who want more Harding Haydn need look no further than the OAE’s concert at the QEH on 15 April, where Symphony No.49 (Passione) and the choral version of Seven Last Words are on the bill.

And so to Beethoven. There are those that would dismiss anyone under 40 conducting this as a travesty, but we should remember that Beethoven started composing it when he was only 34 (it was premièred when he was 38), so this is a young man’s music. Harding actually conducted it with great maturity and it will be fascinating to see how his view of the piece develops over time. I presume he was using the new Bärenreiter edition (or perhaps the new Breitkopf edition – the latter having to come up with something new after Jonathan Del Mar’s groundbreaking research for Bärenreiter, as the old editions simply will not do now), but he didn’t go back to the extended scherzo (nicely illustrated in the programme: a picture of the original parts with the extra sections crossed through). Harding does not overplay the authentic angle; indeed the result was curiously romantic, the brittleness of the natural trumpets and hard sticks on the timpani not conspicuously apparent at all: respectful if not overtly thrilling and without the glaring spotlight of reinvention that marks Rattle’s way with Beethoven nowadays. Yet wonderfully played by the young band from Bremen, who are a force to be reckoned with and are certainly worth catching them wherever you and they coincide.

Given that every project they do is toured extensively (this tour started in Spain, also visited Italy as well as German cities and the British leg), the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen is probably one of the hardest-working ensembles around. Repay that hard work with your custom – it will be well worth it, I can guarantee.

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