Not unlike Berlioz’s Childe Harold, Daniel Harding is a bit of an itinerant among European orchestras, currently dividing his time between the directorships of Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Orchestre de Paris, although the latter is a job from which he is about to stand down. That makes him versatile out of necessity, and it meant that the spectacle of an Englishman conducting a French orchestra in a quintessential German symphony actually worked rather well.

Daniel Harding conducts the Orchestre de Paris
© Ryan Buchanan

For one thing, this orchestra’s playing is remarkably focused under him, and their attention to colouristic detail would put many other French orchestras to shame. Maybe it’s their move to the Philharmonie de Paris: has it made them hear themselves differently? Whatever the cause, the sound in Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony was very impressive, particularly from the strings, which played with only a little vibrato but still with a great deal of warmth. Combine that with the distinctive way in which they leaned into every phrase, and you had a performance that sounded very individualised, particularly when coming from a full-scale symphony orchestra. There was transparency when needed, with a diaphanous quality that permeated even the full tutti sections – even in the storm! – but also a richness and wholeness that filled out for the big swelling climaxes, particularly in the finale. The double basses were placed at the rear centre, which gave the sound a rich, focused grounding, and the winds held up their part of the picture with some beautifully distinctive playing, enlivening their solos with lively colour, fitting into the texture without losing their individuality.

Much of the success was due to Harding himself, who controlled the ebb and flow successfully while building up an impressive sense of momentum at, say, the busy climax of the first movement’s development. There was a lovely sense of bounce to the Scherzo and a feeling of controlled violence in the storm, but the emotional climax came, as it should, in the finale, with a rising sense of ecstasy in the spiritual joy of nature and a finale of hushed prayerfulness that was very effective.

Antoine Tamestit plays Harold en Italie
© Ryan Buchanan

The basses moved to the side of the stage for Harold en Italie, with the harp placed at the very front, but spatial awareness was everything in this performance with Antoine Tamestit as soloist. Tamestit and Harding revived the “staging” of the work that Tamestit first tried with John Eliot Gardiner at last year’s Proms, meaning, in practice, that he moved around the stage as he played. I could see the logic in it, and it seemed to make some dramatic sense: the viola seems to play directly to the harp in the first movement and the clarinet in the second, for example, and the walking about does emphasise the character’s nature as a wanderer.

Most of the time, though, it was just a bit corny, and not only because I overheard one audience member compare him to a waiter in a Greek restaurant. He strummed along to the Serenade while grinning cheesily at the audience, and his moments of astonishment at the percussive explosions of the brigands were a bit naff. Nor was the orchestra on particularly fine form for that finale, which was more of a tea party than an orgy. The only moment where Tamestit’s wanderings made a practical difference to the sound came at the very end, where the string quartet played from the auditorium rather than the stage. Fine, but otherwise a bit of a distraction. At least, however, it solves the problem of what to do with the viola when his part dries up in the finale: he just walks off!