Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Harding and the LSO play Mahler 1 (As well as Part II of Lang Lang's residency, with Tan Dun)

For the second concert in his residence with the London Symphony Orchestra, even newer music was on the cards from the pen of Tan Dun, who also doubled as conductor in the first half. He began with the Internet Symphony Eroica, of which this was the European premiere, the world premiere having recently been given by the YouTube Symphony Orchestra. At just five minutes, the programme suggests it is the shortest ever composed (I don't know if that's true, but I wouldn't be surprised if one of the million or so Segerstam is credited with is shorter). The LSO certainly played it very well (and were joined by two of the British YouTubers) and it was a nice enough piece. All the same, it seemed a bit bland and didn't really grab me. It contained quotes, including from the Beethoven symphony of the same name. The finale, perhaps the most engaging section, seemed reminiscent of Michael Nyman's Musique a Grande Vitesse.

The composer then decided to address the audience and, as is the case nine times out of ten, didn't say anything very interesting (I had to keep muting the sound when watching YouTube Orchesta, as Tilson Thomas loves the sound of his voice far too much). He told us how wonderful a thing the YouTube project was, though he didn't in anyway justify his statement that it was the most important thing in music in years. Hmmm. He then went on to dedicate the performance to Anthony Minghella (who died just before Easter last year) which does prevent me from complaining too loudly about his decision to speak.

The piano concerto that followed was more interesting than the symphony. As with yesterday's Bartok, this too had a fairly percussive piano part, something Tan Dun specifically mentions in his programme note. That said, it left plenty of opportunity for Lang Lang to show his more delicate side. Again, this was played well though in some ways it seemed to lack structure. In particular, it felt like he wasn't sure quite where best to end the piece. Unlike a lot of new music, I wasn't left with the wish to instantly listen again for the things I missed.

Better was to come after the interval in the form of the main reason for my trip south: Mahler's first symphony. Now, I'm a bit of a fan of the composer and have far too many recordings of his work (over ten complete cycles of the symphonies and many more individual recordings). One of the problems is that this makes me a pretty tough customer to please when it comes to live performance, as the RSNO will be aware, and even the best performers haven't come away unscathed. As noted in yesterday's review, I've had some reservations previously about the Harding/LSO partnership. However, Harding has also shown himself to be more than adept with Mahler's work. This is hardly surprising from a conductor who has studied with two of the great Mahlerians of the day (Rattle and Abbado). His recording of the fourth, with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, of whom he is the principal conductor, is one of my favourites and his reading of Cooke's completion of the tenth with the VPO is about as good as they get (and comes as close as any to convincing me that it was right to complete it, though still doesn't quite manage it).

In the end, Harding and the LSO did not disappoint and right from the opening bars, that quiet sustained string chord, it seemed something special was in store. The last time I heard the work, earlier this year in Greyfriars Kirk, it was from an amateur scratch orchestra. This was remarkably good, but underscored something I'd not thought about before, namely just how difficult that opening is. My playing experience extends only to brass (and pretty poorly at that), but playing quietly is much harder than loudly, and the calibre of such playing is always a good yardstick. The LSO strings were superb. The movement provides a tour as Mahler passes a simple theme around the sections and nowhere did they disappoint. Unlike in yesterday's Bruckner, one never got the sense of a detail that Harding hadn't quite exposed as much as he wanted. The offstage brass were good too (and, unlike for Davis's Verdi Requiem, genuinely offstage). He brought off the climaxes with clarity and drama. The second movement danced along with beautiful colour. My one reservation with performance concerns one of my favourite passages: the opening of the third movement where the timpani accompanies a solo bass in the Frere Jacques motif. Or, normally so. Harding chose to have the whole bass section play it. Now, the programme, as ever, provides no elucidation on this point. However, Phillip Huscher's liner note to Haitink's recent Chicago recording (superbly played but a little lacking in passion) informs us that Mahler in fact played around with the passage but had originally intended it to be played by the entire section, but most sections were not up to this so instead opted for a solo. I don't know if Mahler himself would have judged the LSO bass section as being adequate, however, in my view they weren't. Not because they played it badly, mind; they didn't, on the contrary their playing was exemplary. It's just that eight people playing very quietly can't inject the same character that one soloist can (this may be what Mahler himself found). For me, Harding didn't make the case for reverting (neither, for that matter, does Haitink). The result was rather tame and lacking in feeling in comparison to what we're used to. The movement was otherwise excellent and there, as throughout, he built and released tension well. So too the finale. After the first big climax, I wasn't quite sure how he was going to top that for the close, and yet he ratcheted the tension back up unbearably until releasing it in an almighty deluge. For added drama, Harding brought the horns, a trumpet and a trombone to the feet. It was simply stunning. It was, also, quite simply the best thing I have heard from the LSO all season. So good that nothing, not even the epidemic of coughing, the woman with the jangling bracelets behind me, or the lady to my right who was unable to sit still for more than a minute (in general it was a pretty fidgety audience), could spoil it.

You can catch it on Radio 3 on Thursday evening. I would, probably forlornly, hope that it gets a release on CD. However, so soon after the Gergiev recording that seems unlikely. This would be a shame, Harding's approach is infinitely preferable to Gergiev, who conducts Mahler like a man late for an appointment.

Lang Lang's residence continues with concert at St Luke's on Thursday and a solo recital on Sunday (both are sold out). For those who can't get tickets, there's always Friday's online conversation. I'll next see the LSO in June for Paul Lewis and the Emperor (can't wait).

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