I have no head for heights. Viewing towers and castle ledges – if you can persuade me up there in the first place – are treated with extreme caution. I am, therefore, wary of the over-enthusiastic tour guide who slaps you on the back and pushes you forward, exclaiming “Get a look at that view! Isn’t it bloody magnificent?” Daniel Harding was that tour guide, scaling the heights of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony with the LSO, loudly praising the panorama. In the congested acoustic of the Barbican, bludgeoned by the brass, I became fatigued very early in the journey.

Maria João Pires © Felix Broede | DG
Maria João Pires
© Felix Broede | DG
After a wobbly misstep from the first horn made an inauspicious start to the ascent, the mood for the trek was firmly set – bracing, verging on aggressive. Climaxes were blasted through, the dogged “two-against-three” rhythmic gait almost a lop-sided rush to reach the next great orchestral vista. The “hunting” Scherzo lacked rustic charm and the finale was injected with Mahlerian Angst. There were moments of repose to catch one’s breath, such as the noble string chorale in the second movement and the lilting clarinet solo (Andrew Marriner) in the Scherzo’s trio section. The strings’ romantic swell in the finale was rich and satisfying, but Harding’s Bruckner was both too hectic and too hectoring.

If the view from Bruckner’s summit had been proclaimed too loudly, the view through James Moriarty’s Windows was far more restricted. A five-minute concert opener receiving its world première, Windows is a fragmentary piece – sections of the orchestra often employed independently, sparsely scored – where you got the impression you were missing the bigger picture. Pungent woodwind chords and chattering, muted trumpets gave an impression of something bolder trying to escape.

The oasis of calm at the centre of this programme was provided by Maria João Pires, soloist in Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 9 in E flat major, K271. Unusually, this concerto wasn’t written specifically for Mozart himself to perform, but was composed for Victoire Jenamy, daughter of Jean Georges Noverre, ballet master at Vienna’s Imperial Court. It’s the one piano concerto Mozart wrote where there is no orchestral tutti to set things in motion, throwing the soloist straight into the action before standing aside, only to return with a teasing, long trill.

Pires was a model of restraint, compact and precise, with no unnecessary movements at the keyboard. Head tossing and dramatic gestures are not for her. Her delicate little trills in the minor key Andantino had the crystalline beauty of a butterfly beating its fragile wings. There was very little use of the sustaining pedal in a crisp, intimate performance. It was as if we were eavesdropping on a private conversation between pianist and orchestra. The LSO’s silky smooth strings – even if there were quite a lot of them for Mozart – engaged in the dialogue amiably.

Chopin’s First Piano Concerto was originally scheduled for this concert. By way of tantalising compensation, Pires offered us an encore, a Nocturne so mesmerising, so full of moonbeams and ghostly shadows, that I ached for a solo recital for the remainder of the evening.