Personal chemistry is notoriously difficult to analyse. But here’s the thing: when you see it at work, you know it is a real fact and not just a notional idea. Daniel Harding has been in charge of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra since 2007 and has recently signed an extension of his contract for a further five years, in addition to assuming the title of Artistic Director. In the middle of an eleven-city European tour they showed in Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie why successful partnerships are a force to be reckoned with.

Daniel Harding, Alina Ibragimova and the Swedish RSO at the Elbphilharmonie © Claudia Hohne
Daniel Harding, Alina Ibragimova and the Swedish RSO at the Elbphilharmonie
© Claudia Hohne

When orchestras go visiting they often have something specifically national in their luggage. Allan Pettersson may not be a household name outside Sweden, but there he is widely regarded as their most important composer since Stenhammar. No lesser figure than Christian Lindberg has gone on record to say that “Pettersson is, for me, greater than Sibelius or Mahler”. His Symfonisk Sats (Symphonic Movement) derives from the composer’s late period (he produced 16 completed symphonies) and was written to accompany a television film about nature. It is relatively short (about 12 minutes) and compact, hovering on the edge of atonality throughout. The denseness of the writing is immediately apparent: multilayered polyphony, a spread of instrumental timbres from piccolo to tuba and a snare drum in constant attendance adding to a prevailing mood of uncertainty in which individual sections battle in their determination to be heard. It was authoritatively directed by Harding, with the Swedish woodwind and brass lustrous, the ensemble coiled tight right down to the perfectly placed pizzicatos from the double basses.

What makes it so hard to develop affection towards an unloved child? In the case of Schumann’s Violin Concerto in D minor, which had to wait almost a century for its first performance, expectations on the part of key figures were clearly not met. Joachim, the leading violinist of his day, who had urged the composer (“O wondrous guardian of the richest treasures!”) to write him a concerto, was disappointed to find a piece not packed with virtuoso displays and a solo cadenza. Moreover, the composer’s widow was determined to keep from public view any pieces which could conceivably diminish his reputation.

Harding has already amassed credentials in conducting a wide range of works by Schumann, including Scenes from Goethe’s Faust. It was therefore not entirely surprising that the accompaniment to Alina Ibragimova’s reading of the concerto impressed more than the solo performance itself, with surges of dramatic interest and flecks of colour from conductor and players. What never succeeds with this composer is a lack of ardour, no matter how finely controlled the playing might be. Almost throughout Ibragimova kept her eyes firmly fixed on the ground beneath her, wrapped up in an interior world. This yielded dividends in the dreamy slow movement, much admired by Tovey, where she spun lines of pure silk, pared down virtually to a whisper. However, the absence of assertiveness in the opening movement, coupled with a very deliberate tempo, meant no real narrative line was discernible. Having heard a number of outstanding performances of this much-maligned work, I know how it can come to life in the right hands. All you need is love, as the Beatles once sang. But take the final movement too slowly, as was the case here, and the polonaise-like dance becomes starved of its essential vitality.

Purists often curl their noses up at the thought of a quasi-Dr Frankenstein reordering of the body parts in ballet suites. Leaving aside the fact that such concoctions were often sanctioned by composers themselves (often for commercial reasons), it is not always possible to perform entire works conceived on a grand scale such as Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette. Described by the composer himself as “neither a concert opera nor a cantata but a choral symphony”, its purely orchestral extracts can be made to work as a kind of symphony manqué: an opening movement that segues into a festive sequence, the “Love Scene” serving as the slow movement, the “Queen Mab Scherzo” and a finale peppered with grand dramatic gestures.

What told so effectively in this performance was the way in which this Swedish orchestra breathed as one, maintaining superb inner balances and with the back desks of the strings beavering away with as much commitment and conviction as their front-desk colleagues. A wealth of fine detail emerged, from the zephyr-like sighs of the strings in “Romeo Alone” (matched by an excellent oboe solo) to their jagged lines of anguish, delivered with compelling unanimity, in “Romeo at the Tomb of the Capulets”. Here, rich mournful tones from the four bassoons in their upper registers and a clarinet solo that emerged seemingly from nowhere provided further evidence of the quality of the Swedish Radio Symphony as well as a welcome reminder what a fabulous orchestrator Berlioz was.

****1