Friday 24 October 2008

First and last words from the LSO

Where's Runnicles will be getting to a fair few London Symphony Orchestra concerts this season; indeed, so many so that it will be our third orchestra in terms of live performance, after the SCO and RSNO. Most of those concerts will be with conducted by Daniel Harding, though a couple will feature Colin Davis. Readers might wonder why Gergiev isn't featuring. He was fairly impressive with the Mariinsky in Edinburgh this summer, but I have found his LSO efforts less so: I am not nearly as wowed by his Prokofiev symphony survey as many and he seems to conduct Mahler like a man late for an appointment, turning it into a rushed garble. He also seems rather too much a Russian specialist; indeed, it is interesting to note we have just had another Prokofiev cycle just a few years after the first. I'm not sure how good that is for the orchestra or, indeed, why they chose him. Harding, on the other hand, has greatly impressed me, both on disc, and also the one time I have heard him live, in his penultimate concert as music director of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen at the Maltings in Snape where he gave a blinding account of Beethoven's seventh symphony.

First impressions of the LSO were good: the programme was free. Well, I say free, doubtless the handful of pound coins I didn't hand over to the usher found their way into the ticket price. Still, it is nice. The concert is part of the LSO's Last Words series. Indeed, before going further it is worth noting that the season brochure was rather poorly laid out in these thematic groups rather than chronologically, concert by concert, as most others are, and as I would prefer. If anyone from the LSO who has a responsibility for these things is reading this, please take note. Nobody I know thought it was sensible or worked well. The last word in question here was Sibelius's seventh symphony (which, in best pedantry, I should point out is only his last symphony and not really his last symphonic offering which would be the tone poem Tapiola). Absolutely perversely, Harding had chosen to programme it first: some last word! And, as a work, I think it is something of a last word, not a warm up. Perhaps he was worried sticking it in the second half might lead to a lack of balance, however, it didn't seem to fit as a curtain raiser.

Of course, anyone who conducts Sibelius with the LSO is filling awfully big shoes, in light of Colin Davis's legacy (it's good to note that the disc of the first and fourth symphonies that will complete the cycle is out soon). Harding took a slowish view of the single movement work, weighing in at around 23 minutes (quicker than late Bernstein, slower than Oramo and about on a level with Davis). It was a decidedly lukewarm view and it dragged, feeling slower than it was. The rich textures of Sibelius's writing were rendered rather dully. I'm tempted to wonder if the acoustic is partly to blame, since Salonen also had problems when he brought the LA Philharmonic. But Davis gets by fine on his LSO Live recordings. A similar problem occurred with the big entry of the trombones who, to my mind, frame the work at either end. They should soar majestically over the orchestra, but Harding brought everyone else up too so the listener had to work to discern them. The evocative sounds, the icy winds that someone like Bernstein finds, were absent too. The performance caught fire somewhat in the closing minutes, but it was too little too late, and it didn't feel like the epic journey it can.

After a brief reorganisation they were joined on stage by Imogen Cooper, and I suddenly realised I hadn't thought to book keyboard side (a mistake I have a horrible feeling I have repeated for Paul Lewis's visit with the Emperor next summer); I had been a little curious as to why the seats around me were so empty. Cooper played the Mozart 25th concerto, K503, with a sparkle, a delicacy and a beauty that was a treat to listen to. What a shame, then, that this wasn't quite matched from the orchestra, who gave a reading that was neither tight nor dynamic enough, and which was only occasionally impressive. All in all, from the first half, the LSO and Daniel Harding did not appear to be a good team: there was a distinct lack of chemistry between them. Cooper has recorded several of the concertos, including K503, with the Northern Sinfonia - further investigation may be required.

After the interval it was Schumann's second symphony. Almost from the start, one question arose: why on earth couldn't they have played like this in the first half? There was real tension to the slow introduction, then drama and energy to the quicker moments. The scherzo was thrilling. There was a richness to the playing and the orchestra generally seemed on song in a way that hadn't been the case in the first half. The work bounced along wonderfully to an energetic close. This was the sort of Schumann that was missing from the SCO's season opener.

At least, so I thought; my brother felt it had precisely the same problems as the first half, but, as he admitted, he doesn't much care for Schumann. I will be curious to hear what Harding makes of the rest of his appearances.

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