The last time I heard Daniel Harding conduct any Sibelius was at the start of this season, when he did the seventh, which didn't impress me. However, he was joined for the violin concerto by Frank Peter Zimmermann (whose name I realise I've been spelling with only one N on my tweets all evening - apologies). Last time I heard him was at the 2006 Edinburgh festival, appearing with Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic to playing Szymanowski's concerto, which was really quite exceptional (I can't link to a review because it predates the site and I haven't got round to uploading that part of my archive).
Together they made an excellent team. Harding was a superb accompanist, always bringing the orchestra low enough under Zimmermann so he was clear. Which, was a good thing, as it allowed us to appreciate his astonishingly virtuosic playing. However, Harding found plenty of force when Zimmermann wasn't playing; he also found the richness and drama of Sibelius's writing that was absent missing from his seventh and the tempi seemed much better chosen.
It was very well received, so much so that we got an encore. The eagle-eyed could have seen this coming because when Harding and Zimmermann came back out for the second time, the conductor didn't climb back onto the stage, instead nipping into the empty seat at the end of the second row. Zimmermann introduced it as some Paganini variations, written for a visit to England, on a theme we might recognise. Sure enough, the melody of the national anthem was easily detectable. Like many of the composer's works for solo violin, it did feel a little like they might have been written just to show off, especially with the fiendish mix of bowing and plucking. Still, Zimmermann was more than a match for it, and must surely win one of our irregular awards (so named for its first recipient: the Rachel Barton Pine Award for Encores that Alone Justify the Ticket Price*. Don't believe me, judge for yourself thanks to YouTube:
It should be noted that the Sibelius wasn't actually the first item on the programme. The concert began with Schumann's Manfred overture. In another interesting contrast with that earlier concert, where Harding gave a fine reading of a Schumann symphony, here it was a little different. They LSO played well enough, but the piece never really caught fire. However, I think this is more down to the composer, rather than any flaw in Harding's interpretation.
After the interval they finished with Brahms' second symphony. The second is in my view, and by some distance, the highlight of Haitink's recent LSO Live survey of the symphonies. Harding has, of course, studied extensively with Abbado (even now he's the principal conductor of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, which Abbado founded). This was apparent in his reading. I don't really care too much for most of the Abbado Berlin cycle (it's too pretty and laid back for my tastes, though I know plenty of others adore it, doubtless for this reason). You could hear a lot of the same traits from the London Symphony Orchestra last night in the slow and tranquil moments. However, Harding is his own man and there was also plenty of the yearning and turmoil that I so like Brahms. The final few bars were nothing short of electric. The orchestra got some of the best sounds I've heard from this year, which some especially fine wind playing (especially principal flautist Gareth Davies). In short, while it isn't my favourite Brahms (for that look to the first and fourth), nor quite my ideal interpretation (for that look to Mackerras or Jochum or Furtwangler), it was nonetheless a fine end to the season.
I look forward to hearing the LSO again, though I'm not sure when that will be. I'm trying to limit myself to one trip a month next season and all the Royal Opera stuff appears to be on Sundays not Saturdays (and I can't pass up Don Carlos and Tristan, even Runnicles himself would have trouble competing). My December trip is built around a visit by the Concertgebouw and I'm not sure I want to hear Gergiev after I've had a Mahler's second at three pm. That leaves only November, but perhaps that's a cue for me to give Michael Tilson Thomas another chance.
*Caveat: in case Mr Zimmermann, or anyone else interested, is reading this, where's Runnicles' awards carry no actual prize, physical or financial, save the glory or infamy (since they can be both positive and negative). They are awarded and created sporadically, whenever it seems appropriately, and are always named for their inaugural recipient.