In last night’s Prom 51, Daniel Harding conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in a programme that was partially planned by Colin Davis and was due to be conducted by him. With the sad loss of that great conductor earlier in the year, a Sibelius symphony was replaced by Elgar’s second symphony, which the conductor was deeply attached to and which has a strangely valedictory quality, fitting for the occasion.

Daniel Harding  © Chris Christodoulou
Daniel Harding
© Chris Christodoulou

The loss of Davis was deeply felt, not only in the broader sense, but also in the quality of the music making in most of the evening’s performances. The only piece, it seemed, that Daniel Harding was entirely at ease with was Britten’s song cycle Les Illuminations sung by the radiant tenor, Ian Bostridge. The performance was as sharp and imaginative as it could be. This is Britten at his least Brittenish, setting some distinctly worrying poems in French by Arthur Rimbaud. In these settings he seemed to free himself from any hint of tweeness that tends to invade his setting of English texts. Also, as it was originally written for a soprano, it manages to avoid the mannerisms associated with his works written for Peter Pears.

Ian Bostridge was generally rather fine, producing some wonderfully floating tones at the upper end of his voice in quieter passages and working hard to dramatise the more extroverted moments. Occasionally, however, he sounded strained and forced, and his physical presence was somewhat awkward – this was a performance at its best when heard and not seen.

Before the Britten, Harding and the London Symphony Orchestra performed two works by Tippett – another firm favourite of Colin Davis. The first work was the Fanfare No. 5, hewn from the composer’s great final choral work, The Mask of Time. Although a short piece for brass and percussion, the LSO brass seemed very nervous and they never seemed to get on top of its tricky rhythms. It did, however, whet the audience’s appetite for a full performance of that extraordinary work.

The Concerto for Double Stringed Orchestra that followed was also disappointing. From the outset there seemed to something wrong. The tempo was too slow; the complex rhythms were carefully navigated, as if they were by Britten, instead of the lustier approach taken in its best recordings (Marriner and Barshai). The slow movement fared best, with the silken strings of the LSO at their most alluring. The movement is full of so many beautiful themes that it can stand up to being lingered over. The return of the fabulous main solo cello theme (Rebecca Gilliver) was my highlight of the evening. The finale suffered from the same faults as the first movement – too slow and delicate rather than passionate. The final conflagration of themes, which should be such a tremendous outpouring of joy, sounded tepid.

The Elgar Symphony No. 2 that completed the programme was not a happy experience either. The orchestra seemed perfectly at ease with Elgar’s lush string-led orchestration; however it felt as if, in the overall sound, the brass were holding back – never good in Elgar, because his moments of drama need to really register in order to maintain the structure’s complex flow.

The first movement was again far too slow. Harding seemed to approach it as if he were conducting Mahler, lingering too long in the lyrical passages and then not punching out the drama. The underlying pulse was missing and the movement did not add up to the some of its parts. An object lesson in finding this ‘pulse’ can be found in Adrian Boult’s fine recordings of the work, which fizz from first to last note and are about three minutes shorter.

The second movement also needed to be driven more. This is a funeral march, but to give it the disquieting edge it surely should have, it needs to have an unstoppable juggernaut quality, which was lacking here. The scherzo had a livelier tempo and a sharper approach, although the great doom-laden climax at its heart was not given full weight. The ambivalent finale, which is always problematic in performance, was generally well handled, though the sin of under-emphasis was committed in the last climatic passage before the quiet coda. The deliberately inconclusive ending was then smoothed over with some luxuriant playing in the final bars.

I wanted to enjoy this concert more – a concert of music that I admire and love, and also because it was a memorial to the much-missed Sir Colin Davis – but sadly this was not to be.

Prom 51Chris Garlick reviews Daniel Harding and the LSO in Elgar, Tippett and Britten at the Proms 20133