After all that tonal instability in last week’s Wagner marathon at the Proms, Daniel Harding and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra’s programme celebrating C major came as a breath of fresh air. The Royal Albert Hall had cooled down a bit too. But their programme consisted of much more than the typical joyous and festive C major music: in fact, they opened with a solemn C minor work – Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music written in 1785 for a Freemason’s lodge in Vienna (Mozart himself had joined the Freemasons the year before). In particular, the wind instruments, underpinned by the bassoons and the contrabassoon, brought a dark and mysterious hue to the work, reminding one of sections in Mozart’s Requiem. As the final chord died away, Harding and the orchestra made a seamless transition (without applause) to Schumann’s Second Symphony, which was very effective (more the pity that the spell was somewhat broken when some people applauded after the first movement).

Daniel Harding © Luca Piva
Daniel Harding
© Luca Piva

Schumann’s C major symphony contains one of the composer’s most personal and achingly beautiful orchestral pieces, but some performances can become over-romantic or too sentimental. Harding’s approach, on the other hand, seemed to emphasise a leaner sonority as well as harmonic and motivic clarity, but at times I felt that the emotional urgency was missing. In the first movement, the slow introduction opened spaciously with the solemn brass fanfare, but the main Allegro theme could have been more incisive and forward-moving (although they did achieve this is the thrilling coda). The Scherzo second movement was much more successful – the orchestra maintained the transparency of Schumann’s orchestral texture with nimble and articulate playing, and the dialogue of the winds and strings in the Trio section was also appropriately playful. The slow third movement is the emotional core of the work, and the violins lead the lyrical and yearning melody that plays on dissonances. Here too, Harding didn’t wear his emotion on the sleeve, focusing more on the pure harmonic beauty of the work. It was certainly a tender performance with excellent solos from the principal flute (Chiara Tonelli) and oboe (Mizuho Yoshii). The finale was full of energy and vigour, exploring various motifs and keys before reaching a climax in blazing and life-affirming C major.

The Mahler Chamber Orchestra has a flexible structure that allows them to play a wide repertoire from Classical to contemporary – with awareness of various musical styles. In Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 25, which opened the second half, the strings played with classical bows and the smaller-sized timpani was used, bringing out Mozartian style and sonority. The concerto is a masterpiece by the mature Mozart, and pianist Paul Lewis gave a wonderfully poised performance, displaying soloistic virtuosity as well as a lyrical and intimate chamber-music quality. His tone had both clarity and warmth; also, everything was eloquently phrased and played with seemingly effortless technical mastery. There was an obvious rapport and trust between pianist, conductor and orchestra, listening to each other attentively: this was ensemble-making of the highest order. There was warm interaction between the piano and woodwind solos in the slow movement, which explores light and shade through extraordinary harmonic writing. In the generally light-hearted finale, the orchestra could have been more playful, but as a whole it was a hugely satisfying performance.

The orchestra concluded their exploration of C major with Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony. This is post-Wagner C major and we were in totally different territory. Admittedly, the Seventh is not the grandest of Sibelius’ symphonies, but even with an enlarged string section, the orchestra lacked the spaciousness of Sibelius’ symphonic writing. Harding’s approach to each section was well controlled, and the transitions were led with confident authority, but he didn’t quite achieve the longer, huge arc of the whole and the climax also seemed underpowered.

Fortunately, they returned to Mozart for their encore: the finale from his “Jupiter” Symphony was played with style and vigour as well as precision in the fugal sections. For this reviewer at least, it was Mozart’s C major that triumphed in this concert.