It takes a concert performance from Teatro alla Scala to re-connect with an element missing from so many online experiences during the pandemic: applause from an audience, here appreciative and enthusiastic at the very end. Not that the entire auditorium was packed to the rafters. Those attending were confined to all the boxes which wrap themselves around the horseshoe shape, the orchestra spread out over what would normally be the stalls, the woodwind and brass positioned on risers towards the far end, the conductor near the proscenium. Yet it was the symbolism that mattered, the audience inclining towards the players, giving them a virtual warm embrace.

Daniel Harding conducts the Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala
© Teatro alla Scala

It was also good to see the La Scala Orchestra present in generous proportions, the strings grounded on six double basses together with five horns for the main work. In the 19th-century repertoire, size is one of those things that do matter. And these strings are impressive: they produce a warm, rounded and weighty sound. They were heard to good effect in the slow introduction to Weber’s Der Freischütz overture, with tremolo shivers from the violins and pregnant sighs from the lower strings. According to the composer, the two characterising features of the opera are “the life of the hunter and the rule of demonic powers”. The forces of darkness were well represented by the growling trombones and sombre clarinet solo, a hint of gloom-transcending magic reflected in the gleaming strings of the coda, the confident horns conjuring up images of huntsmen riding through shadowy woodland.

Daniel Harding, now in his mid-forties, is an athletic presence on the podium, stretching in all directions, with a left arm that seems to scythe its way through textures, given to occasional squeezing motions that betray a tendency towards micro-management. Both the overture and the symphony were well controlled, with little in terms of tempo choices that might raise an eyebrow. Perhaps the control was just a tad too rigid: I was hoping for more passion and Latin temperament both in Weber’s overture and in the Dvořák symphony that followed.

Huge quantities of analysis have been advanced by musicologists and critics on the exact nature of the “New World” Symphony. Far from being a hotch-potch of American-inspired melodies, I believe its essentially Bohemian character remains unmistakeable, not least in the con fuoco marking for the Finale. More than that, the predominant key of E minor in three of the movements points to the underlying sadness, the feeling of nostalgia that Dvořák had for his homeland. To paraphrase: you can take the man out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the man. That was perhaps the key ingredient insufficiently realised in Harding’s interpretation, the listener being somewhat short-changed of heartache.

However, there was much that Harding got right. With the score unopened in front of him, his pacing of the work was assured, the first movement exposition was repeated, the Largo never dragged, the triangle was clearly audible in the Scherzo, there followed a fine attacca between the third and fourth movements, and there was an admirable cymbal stroke and not crash in the Finale. Why does this matter? We know that Dvořák was quite obsessive about trains, spending hours in Grand Central Station, and the stroke is his homage to the application of the braking mechanism in a steam locomotive.

Given the attention to such details, I was disappointed that the characteristic prominence of the woodwinds in Dvořák’s writing was somewhat downplayed by Harding. But then neither the woodwind section nor the brass can match the La Scala strings for quality.

 

This performance was reviewed from the Teatro alla Scala video stream 

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