Wednesday night’s concert saw the London Symphony Orchestra with principal guest conductor Daniel Harding in what seemed a slightly odd programme. With Schubert’s miniature masterpiece the Symphony no. 5 in B flat paired with Mahler’s lofty orchestral song cycle Das Lied von der Erde, I was worried the Schubert would be somewhat neglected against what Leonard Bernstein described as Mahler’s greatest work. Such worries, it transpired, were totally unjustified. Mezzo Christianne Stotijn outshone tenor Burkhard Fritz in the latter piece, but throughout the evening it was the LSO that was the highlight. Even in the most intimate textures of Schubert’s smallest symphony, they demonstrated an excellent rapport with Harding, whose clear enthusiasm was made manifest in an orchestral sound now crystal clear, now irresistibly voluptuous, and always totally committed.

Daniel Harding © Deutsche Grammophon, Harald Hoffmann
Daniel Harding
© Deutsche Grammophon, Harald Hoffmann

Forming the entirety of the first half, Schubert’s 30-minute Fifth Symphony was a brilliant exposition of the LSO’s mastery both as individuals and as a group. With the sparse wind section (using only one flute and no clarinets) sat at the front of the orchestra as a quintet of soloists, and a reduced string section, this was a performance that was as flexible and exquisitely communicative as chamber music, and yet never allowed the orchestral colour to lose its depth and warmth. The LSO hung on Harding’s every gesture, dynamic shading and minute, infinitely expressive manipulations of tempo faultlessly brought off; the first movement’s playful dialogues across the orchestra were a delight. This not mentioning some wonderful playing from the wind soloists, notably flautist Gareth Davies; principal bassoon Daniel Jemison also was warm and graceful in the third movement’s Trio.

Most remarkably for me, Harding’s performance captured perfectly the curious relationship between Schubert and Mahler. For both, gaiety tends either to cover or collapse into despair, and it was the symphony’s vehement outbursts that stayed with me during the interval. Balanced against transparent textures in lighter moments, the character was not merely sunny but teetering on a knife-edge between light and darkness, even in the joyous first movement, where the diminished chords that end each section were not merely cheeky but menacing, sudden, and weirdly fleeting stabs of pain. Even next to the death-gorged Das Lied von der Erde, this was Schubert more than successfully making his case to be heard as an important predecessor to Mahler.

Unfortunately, the opening of Das Lied had me wondering whether the main course would live up to such an excellent appetiser. The LSO were once again faultless, but Fritz simply could not match them. Although some of the fault must go to Mahler for tasking the tenor with soaring over some really rather heavy orchestration, such is the Heldentenor’s natural lot, and Fritz struggled throughout to be heard. Whether due to this or something else, his performance also rather lacked character, the bitter ironies of the “Drinking Song of Earth’s Misery” and the tear-stained lithograph presented in “Youth” were rather lost in a largely perfunctory execution. Although he had warmed to his role by his third song, “The Drunkard in Spring”, both he and therefore the words were still largely inaudible, an inadmissible fault in poetry of such crushing emotional weight.

Of course, the tenor is not the main event in Das Lied, and Stotijn was significantly more impressive. Though perhaps some lines might preferably have had more depth or character at first, particularly the radiant entreaty to the “Sun of love” in “The Lonely One in Autumn”, by the final song she was clearly in her element, and the effect was spellbinding. Gifted with one of Mahler’s most desolate and yet most uplifting – not to mention longest – songs, “The Farewell” has the mezzo and orchestra lead the audience on a journey from the darkest despair to the sublimation of life into the beauty of nature, and Stotijn engaged totally with the text’s character. With an admirable range of colours in her voice, by the last, repeated “Ewig” (“forever”) Stotijn’s total commitment and dramatic intensity had completely won me over.

None of this would have been possible, of course, without the brilliance of the LSO and Harding. Mahler’s rich, decadent orchestration was tackled head-on and with aplomb, the tuttis full and luminous without becoming overbearing, and quieter moments with all the chamber music focus that had made the Schubert so riveting. Das Lied features some of Mahler’s most unusual touches of instrumental colour, and Harding was clearly unwilling to allow balance issues to let these be obscured; the result was a deliciously colourful reading of the score, and one that gave instrumental soloists all the space they needed to shine. Gareth Davies’ haunting flute solos in the final song were matched by an excellent section of horns led by Alberto Menéndez Escribano, and these were only part of an LSO stepping with ease and pride into the spotlight.