Saturday, March 24, 2007

LSO (Daniel Harding), Barbican, 22 March

With what one might call a great rattle of publicity, Daniel Harding made an auspicious debut in his new job as principal guest conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. He is just thirty-one. Cannily, his first item (March 22 Barbican) was by a composer that none of the orchestra has played before; Jean-Philippe Rameau (1685-1764), a suite of dances from his opera Hippolyte et Aricie, music quite in the line of quirky French composers that continued with Berlioz and went on with Debussy, Satie and Boulez. Rameau's delightful tunes and dances never go quite where you think they are going, harmonies and rhythms that are delightfully catchy, in fact, catch you out; as with Stravinsky, you can't tap your foot to Rameau, it is too unexpected.

I admit to preferring to hear these orchestral dances, rather than with singers trying desperately to cope with the mountains of ornaments and graces that overlay the sung parts. The curious thing is that Rameau's first opera was written when he was already fifty years of age. Up to that time he composed nothing but keyboard music and treatises. After the success of Hippolyte et Aricie , he continued to write for the stage operas and opera-ballets, music of great virility, works that (I quote), 'stand like Baroque blocks in Rococo surroundings'. There are over a score of works for the stage composed in his last three decades.

This strong music was strongly played, the first violins in particular shining and soaring as if they had been playing Rameau for years. And if Rameau is quirky, what about Mahler's Number 7? Number 6 was tragic, difficult but satisfying; Number 7 sounds like a symphony composed by a composer, not writing about a tragedy, but a man in the middle of tragic happenings, a man trying to fight his way out of horrendous fateful traps. The symphony is not only difficult, but uncomfortable, and the last movement lets it down like a man desperately trying to survive but failing. The first movement strains every nerve in the listener, it shrieks, it is shrill, unrelenting, bludgeoning. There follow two serenades, not comfortable, but easier on the ear, the second with touches that recall Schumann. These serenades enclose a scherzo that is like a will-of-the-wisp. compellingly thrusting. Queen Mab meets Kafka. But with the finale the vital current seems to fail. Mahler again seems desperate, desperate to provide a happy ending, but happiness eludes him, as he tries one damn thing after another, let's try a minuet; no, bring in the trumpets and drums again, modulate, modulate, ape the baroque. But the major keys merely sound bland and unconvincing and the whole piece ends with Mahler's nerves in a tangle. And our's.

The symphony calls for endurance in the players and virtuosity. It got both, plus mental concentration. The LSO proved its top quality and so did Daniel Harding. He was alert to the main line (where there was one) and also to every detail, controlling the ship and steering it safely into port, even though the music biffed the quayside.

Yet what a master Mahler is. His use of the orchestra brings new life, his harmonies touch the souls of the faithful, and his counterpoint is, in its own way, as remarkable as Bach or Beethoven, or Wagner.

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