LSO shines under Harding in Schubert 5 and Das Lied von der Erde 20/11/13

‘Wednesday night’s concert saw the London Symphony Orchestra with principal guest conductor Daniel Harding in what seemed a slightly odd programme. With Schubert’s miniature masterpiece theSymphony no. 5 in B flatpaired with Mahler’s lofty orchestral song cycle Das Lied von der Erde, I was worried the Schubert would be somewhat neglected against what Leonard Bernstein described as Mahler’s greatest work. Such worries, it transpired, were totally unjustified. Mezzo Christianne Stotijn outshone tenor Burkhard Fritz in the latter piece, but throughout the evening it was the LSO that was the highlight. Even in the most intimate textures of Schubert’s smallest symphony, they demonstrated an excellent rapport with Harding, whose clear enthusiasm was made manifest in an orchestral sound now crystal clear, now irresistibly voluptuous, and always totally committed.’

Read my whole review of Wednesday’s concert on Bachtrack here.


Strauss: Burleske; Mahler, Symphony no. 6 in A Minor, LSO/Dausgaard/Douglas, 25/9/13

Wednesday night saw the LSO in, frankly, disappointing form. If the rumours are true, it seems Sir Simon Rattle will have a somewhat capricious bunch to contend with in 2017; I have heard the LSO play more together under Gergiev’s toothpick and possessed left hand than they did all evening under Dausgaard’s exemplary baton technique. Whatever the reason for this, the whole concert, particularly Mahler’s colossal Sixth Symphony, felt like a struggle between conductor and orchestra, with frequent ensemble lapses letting the LSO’s reputation down. The latter only occasionally took note of Dausgaard’s often unorthodox interpretive decisions, and the performance nearly fell apart due to miscommunication in the last movement. What’s more, at the end of the concert and after such a huge symphony, it took an effort to recall Barry Douglas’s performance of Richard Strauss’s Burleske we heard as the opener.

Programming Mahler symphonies can be tough. With the exception of the modestly-proportioned First and Fourth (at about 55 minutes each; this is Mahler, after all), the symphonies tend to run well over an hour, but often not quite enough that they satisfy the standard concert length of around 1 hour 40 minutes. What’s more, the impact of works so gloriously overscored, overemotional, and overlong is rather difficult to balance in a programme – by the end of the Sixth, especially, any prior work can tend to be forgotten. Best, I think, to head the other way; for instance, I once saw the Ninth prefaced to magical effect with Mozart’s G Major Violin Concerto. Intimate textures and delicate orchestration only emphasised Mahler’s self-aware grandiloquence, which reaches out through total musical decadence and even cliché to something far beyond. Whilst Mozart highlighted the magical excess of Mahler, Richard Strauss’s Burleske did not.

A 20-minute concerto for large orchestra and piano by a swaggeringly confident young Strauss, the Burleske felt rather too big for its boots under Douglas and Dausgaard. Tempi were stodgy and Douglas opted for a broadly lyrical approach swathed in pedal, which seems rather against the puckish spirit of the piece. Timpanist Nigel Thomas’s starring role was played to perfection, and his dialogue with the soloist was often genuinely entertaining. Although the LSO sounded fine, this performance lacked conviction, and there’s not quite enough in the piece to distract an audience from Mahler 6, particularly with the massive percussion section looming at the back of the Barbican Hall.

On this point, I must say that the hammerblows were perhaps the most disappointing parts of this performance. Two out of three of Mahler’s ‘blows of Fate’ are executed by a sledgehammer; what less musical and more interesting instrument could there be? However, instead of the usual practice of lifting the hammer over the head and letting it fall from there, the LSO’s percussionist first lifted it, but then in fact brought the hammer down and dropped the long end onto the box from about a foot above. The effect of this was twofold: first, we were disappointed that the swing was so anaemic, and the blow itself was a damp squib – aurally and dramatically, a letdown. Mahler’s hammer is pure theatre; it is probably in truth no louder than the other percussion, but the great fall produces such an impression on an audience that the hammer may as well be the only thing playing. To try and make it just another instrument makes it, well, just another instrument.

Perhaps it’s the horn player in me telling me to blame the conductor for everything, but I’m fairly sure this was Dausgaard’s caprice rather than percussion section intransigence, so tight was the control he attempted to exert elsewhere. His flexibility of tempo would have been really admirable if it had been married to a unified musical vision. This was a conductor who wanted to manage every nuance of expression, but often ideas would be overused, so that what was novel became merely predictable. Particularly notable for this were the scherzo and finale, where the return of transitional sections in new orchestrations and alignments did not bring a similar renewal of interpretation.

In Dausgaard’s defence, when he had control the results were often good; the slow middle section of the first movement – a depiction of ‘the last terrestrial sounds penetrating into the remote solitude of mountain peaks’ – was particularly fine, with breathtaking playing from principal horn Timothy Jones. The first movement in general showcased many good ideas, and Dausgaard’s flexible tempi were marvellously on display in the ravishing second theme. The opening march was taken, I believe, even a bit faster than Gergiev’s fleet-footed reading with the same orchestra, and quick tempi were the name of the game throughout, though they could also go further in the opposite direction than any other performance I have heard.

Such an approach, however, engenders risks, and the LSO seemed either unable (one suspects not) or unwilling (one suspects so) to work with Dausgaard’s dictatorial control of expression, ensemble issues plaguing the performance. Particularly glaring was a wrong percussion entry in the final movement, which took some worryingly blatant cuing from Dausgaard to correct. It’s rare to see the LSO nearly fall apart, but see it we did, and this was only the most egregious example. For whatever reason, the LSO was in a heads-down mood and the performance sounded like it; with ensemble issues clearly setting them on edge, this did not feel a committed performance and despite the ensuing silence, there was no spell to break come the symphony’s cataclysmic conclusion.