I am sometimes unsure what Daniel Harding, newly appointed Principal Guest Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, is up to.
On the one hand, he draws the most sumptuous tone from whichever band he conducts, and he can breathe new light into even those works so thoroughly ingrained on the cranium.
On the other, he lacks experience, and often seems unsure of how to translate his fresh interpretative ideas into coherent musical performances.
Take Dvork’s The Golden Spinning Wheel, with which Harding began his programme with the LSO on Sunday evening. The work is repetitive anyway, but when burdened with overdone rubato and stop-start tempi, all the glistening melodies, glittering orchestrations and dramatic juxtapositions lost their effect. And where Alban Berg demands edgy contours and precise interlocking lines in his extraordinary Violin Concerto, Harding provided soupy textures and self-consciously Romanticised sweeps. Undecided on whether to emphasise lyricism or violence, his interpretation crammed in as much of both as was possible and, predictably, neither made much impact.
If there was one area in which the interpretation was successful, it was in illuminating the conversations between violinist and orchestral soloists, and Harding could rely on Frank Peter Zimmermann to provide a spectacular, kaleidoscopic reading of the solo part. The man’s bowing was aggressive, his legato consistently smooth throughout every register, and he shaped Berg’s alternately choppy and arching lines into vast structural patterns. If Zimmermann’s vibrato widened uncomfortably in the high lying notes at the end, it prevented the ecstatic resolution from seeming trite. And after the violence that opens Part Two (played with stinging directness by the LSO), such ambiguity made sense.
The best, though, was saved until last,which was ironic given that Dvork’s Ninth Symphony can go on a bit even with the tautest direction. If the famous Largo was stretched to breaking point, the overall performance nevertheless excited for its dynamism, the enthralling playing of the orchestra and, most surprisingly, the vast architectural overview of Daniel Harding. Rarely have I heard the symphony’s Adagio opening so effectively shaped, with tempi and dynamics swerving, tearing and contorting in response to the glowering orchestrations. Whether in the virtuosic tapestry that is the Scherzo or the Mahlerian stream of ideas that tumble over one another in the Allegro con fuoco, the orchestra flowered.
The violins provided the most enthralling playing – I cannot think of another violin section in Britain who could maintain such precise intonation in this complex writing. The horns, meanwhile, have recovered from their blip midway through last year, and not a note was out of place. The woodwind soloists were predictably superb, and Harding’s malleably spacious tempi allowed every solo line to step to the fore for its moment of glory. And even in that slow movement, the overall idea was highly intelligent; it just needed a Herculean effort of concentration from the listener. So perhaps Mr Harding is a genius after all.