Tortured souls don't always produce tortured music. Last night's concert at the Barbican, given by the LSO and Daniel Harding, featured two works by Schumann and Bruckner, two composers who had more than their fair share of mental crises and self-doubt. Both, however, produced music of rare beauty.
Although the Schumann Piano Concerto belongs clearly to the Romantic era, it has a very classical feel to it. Schumann resists the temptation of his time to create a vast, showy confrontation between soloist and orchestra: rather, it's a clearly structured, elegant work of great intimacy. The relationship between the pianist and the other players is more akin to what you would hear in a chamber work, and Nicholas Angelich did a fine job of bringing this out; the famously muscular figure with which the concerto opens gives way to rolling, rippling textures which sounded quite delicious.
In much of his writing, Schumann described the two halves of his personality as the flamboyant Florestan and the reflective Eusebius. It's Eusebius who would have enjoyed last night's performance: the calming, thoughtful passages came through the strongest, with lovely timbre from the LSO's string section and good accuracy under the baton of Daniel Harding. I was a little less convinced in the occasional violent outbursts that punctuate the first movement, which didn't quite pack the punch I might have hoped for: on this occasion, Florestan seemed just a shade restrained. However, the restraint began to recede in the following two movements, and the finale was completed with suitable flourish.
Bruckner's sixth symphony is not played as often as many of his others, perhaps because it's "less Bruckner-like": more episodic and with less of the quality of steady construction of an edifice of sound. Bruckner started writing the sixth in 1879, two years after the première of his third symphony dissolved into fiasco, and he may have been attempting to respond to some of his more virulently conservative critics. It wasn't the most single-minded of attempts: even if the sixth is more straightforward structurally, it's very challenging rhythmically, with six-against-four passages and frequent use of the "Bruckner rhythm" (two crotchets paired with a triplet).
For my ears, the outstanding things about last night's performance were all about texture. The high points in the first movement belong to the brass: in a very Wagnerian way, they are repeatedly allowed to let rip and produce a series of glorious fanfares - Bruckner marked the score as "majestoso" (majestic, as opposed to "maestoso", which means sad), and the LSO certainly achieved both majesty and nostalgia. The second movement belongs to the strings with intense, filling texture, punctuated by some heart-rending oboe solos: the LSO's principal oboist Juan Pechuan Ramirez had plenty to do for the whole evening and was on splendid form, with bell-like clarity and great expression.
After a shorter and quirky scherzo, the fourth movement is an alternation between the calming string movements and the return of the vivid brass fanfares of the first. Each of these modes was lovely to listen to, though it did seem to me that the music moves between them somewhat sharply: the two are juxtaposed rather than blended. Still, the music provided plenty of opportunity for Harding and the LSO to show what they can do, ending in a final joyous brass-laden hurrah.