Tuesday evening’s concert was technically the start of a short residency for Mark-Anthony Turnage with the London Symphony Orchestra, but a smouldering performance on the podium from Daniel Harding came close to drawing attention away from the featured composer. A curious mixture of Sibelius, Turnage and Beethoven – a combination of composers repeated in Thursday’s concert – served primarily to demonstrate Harding’s versatility in conducting, as well as the strength of his relationship with the LSO.
Sibelius’ Tapiola is a pretty striking choice as a concert opener, a gripping and substantial voyage through ice, forests and whirlwinds that would have merited a higher billing in this or any other concert. Harding chiselled his way through it with precision and a sense of the dramatic; the strings (of whom a lot is asked) shone throughout, offset by some less clinical though gorgeously wintry wind playing. I was engrossed, from the graceful, vast opening strains through to the storm of tremolos in the closing pages. This was a performance that exuded authority, control and passion. It just didn’t have anything to do with the rest of the programme.
That aside, there was much to enjoy in the first half’s second piece, which saw trumpet legend Håkan Hardenberger join the orchestra for Turnage’s trumpet concerto From the Wreckage. Though technically demanding, this is no virtuosic showpiece, but rather a serious and pensive meditation in which a curious, drifting solo part speculates above a sinister and massive orchestral brocade. But this is, perhaps, the wreckage from which we emerge: an abrupt mood shift in the closing minutes sees the angst and density of most of the work dissolve into a soft, reflective final gesture. It’s a piece with an exquisitely careful structure, and Harding’s shaping of it was ideal. Hardenberger was exemplary, and particularly impressive in his tonal control in the piercing, high scale which ends the work.
While the shaping of these two single-movement works was impressive, Harding’s control of the Eroica Symphony was a little less convincing, the second movement especially seeming more like a thoughtful meander than the hefty, almost philosophical tract it can be. Elsewhere, there were many striking moments – a lively opening, plenty of vim in the Scherzo – but lacking was the sense of joined-up thinking over the whole piece which makes this symphony the crucial repertory mainstay it rightly is. Still, maybe I am expecting too much from my Beethoven after reading a series of inspiring reviews of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra’s cycle at Carnegie Hall.
Compared to WEDO’s, of course, most Beethoven symphony performances come across as a little agendaless, but the issue wasn’t helped here by this concert’s rather bitty programming. Given that Thursday’s concert also contained works by these three composers, I’m guessing there is some careful curatorial reasoning behind it, but I’m at a loss as to what it is. That said, performances as strong as those in the first half justify themselves, and with a top orchestra apparently relishing the direction of a charismatic, brilliant conductor, this was still a concert to savour.