The startling Ravello landscape is one the most fascinating resorts on the Neapolitan southern coast. There you can walk among terraces and verandas, from where you can spy dazzling glimpses of the Mediterranean Sea hundreds of metres below.

In this alluring and reserved atmosphere of the international jet set, for more than 50 years the Ravello Festival has delivered one of the most important summer festivals of quality music in Italy. It was founded in 1953 to honour Richard Wagner’s close connection with the town, and was originally focused on classical music and opera - mainly from the Wagnerian catalogue: now it also presents dance, jazz, theatre, art and literature.

Daniel Harding © Julian Hargreaves
Daniel Harding
© Julian Hargreaves

The festival is hosted in the open air setting of the gardens of Villa Rufolo, which is said to have given Wagner inspiration for Klingsor's garden in Parsifal. What makes this a unique location is the fact that the orchestra plays while the sun dies in the sea, the moon rises above the promontory in the background, and the crickets’ counterpoint descends from the pine trees.

Each year the festival’s programme includes some real treats: this year’s highlight was the London Symphony Orchestra’s concert conducted by Daniel Harding. And it has to be considered as a homage to the prestige of the Ravello Festival that LSO has delivered here its sole non-UK concert with its principal guest conductor for 2014.

The programme was lip-smacking: Schubert’s Symphony no. 8 in B minor, the “Unfinished”, followed by Mahler’s grandiose, demanding First Symphony.

© Ravello Festival
© Ravello Festival

Daniel Harding conducted the LSO in an extremely composed performance of Schubert’s “Unfinished”, reminding us of the degree of this work’s introspection. Harding delimited the different instrumental sections, underlining differences rather than uniformity. In this way the individual parts could be clearly perceived, while the conductor’s restrained tempos emphasised the mysterious intensity of the piece.

From the very opening – uneven and rustling – a sort of uneasy mood was projected that continued in the Andante, without any blatant reiteration. The focus was on instrumental colours more than on magniloquence and regularity of tempo or phrasing. The dramatic development section was delivered with sensitivity. It was thoughtfully conducted by Harding who controlled the orchestral sound, only now and then allowing the music to swell. The severe tempo in the first movement became a little more variable in the second, as the LSO achieved enthralling pianissimos.

Mahler’s First Symphony followed the interval, and was given a praiseworthy performance all the same. Again, Harding's performance was quite composed. The British conductor began his career by assisting eminent Mahlerians like Simon Rattle and Claudio Abbado, and can himself be considered a Mahler specialist. It is a fact that Mahler holds a special place in the repertoire of Daniel Harding, as well as in that of LSO. The First Symphony, also known as “The Titan”, is a  composition full of vitality, humour and energy. In the first movement, the orchestra reproduced the sounds of the Nature with which the music starts with sensitivity and amazing technical ability. In this movement Harding’s orchestral design was extremely praiseworthy for allowing Mahler’s counterpoint to be completely displayed.

The second movement was conducted in a relatively solid manner, and the same could be said of the funeral march, as its bizarreness arose from the score itself rather than being accentuated by the interpretation. Its contrasting features emerged all the same, though discreetly, and the performance preserved the movement’s significant inherent power. 

Maybe on some occasions the tension dropped a little, though certainly not in the symphony’s rousing ending. The triumphant finale was convincingly drawn and Harding wasn’t in any sense austere in delineating it. The theatrical ending reached an histrionic peak when the brass section stood for the final notes.

This concert was dedicated to the memory of Claudio Abbado and Harding’s was a sincere tribute to his maestro. At the end, the applause and ovations were more than deserved, as the emotional depth and refined tones drawn from one of the UK’s leading orchestras (and among the best in the world) by Daniel Harding made it a highly outstanding experience.