Sir Thomas Beecham pooh-poohed the idea that the Fourth Symphony of Sibelius is austere. To him it was a romantic wallow. By contrast, for this unusual concert with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Harding reclaimed the work’s glacial core. It’s a shame his performance has to be pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle from fragments interrupted over the course of 90 minutes by complementary but disruptive chippings by other hands.

Daniel Harding
© Arne Hyckenberg

The idea for this concert set to “shuffle” was conceived by Harding during the eight weeks he spent in his Paris flat under hard lockdown. It was, he has said, an attempt to acknowledge the state of our current world and speak to our different experiences at this difficult and sombre time. The result, intentionally or not and filled with beauty and sweetly played though it was, interwove moods of despondency and pessimism.

Daniel Harding and the Swedish RSO
© Arne Hyckenberg

Semi-distanced across the platform of the Stockholm Berwaldhallen, the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra played with an intimate cohesiveness that belied their circumstances. The first movement broke the eerie silence of an almost-empty auditorium with Harding’s lugubrious and ice-cold account of the opening movement. Romantic? Not a bit of it. Menacing, rather, as baleful brass asked challenging questions and the eloquent strings responded with supine acceptance. The Largo wept with desolation, its bitter string tremolandi all the bleaker for being understated.

Ann Hallenberg und Daniel Harding
© Arne Hyckenberg

Harding’s ability to sustain a coherent reading of an elusively beautiful symphony is not in question, but the act of focusing was tougher on the listening audience whose access to the composer’s tightly argued 33-minute structure was broken by interspersions both spoken and sung. Swedish mezzo Ann Hallenberg made two rapturous contributions, first after the opening movement of the Sibelius with Mahler’s “Der Einsame im Herbst”, the aching song of loneliness from Das Lied von der Erde (shaped with exquisite yearning by Harding and his players), and later with Bach’s “Erbarme dich” from the St Matthew Passion, in which Peter laments his betrayal of Christ.

Swedish Radio Choir
© Arne Hyckenberg

In between, Krister Henriksson (best known outside his native country as the eponymous star of TV’s Wallander) gave lugubrious readings from the stalls of verses by Sweden’s most celebrated modern poet, the Nobel laureate Tomas Tranströmer. Shabbily dressed and slumped, he was an isolated representative of the souls missing from the seats around him. Except he was not quite alone; the Swedish Radio Choir materialised behind the actor to join the orchestra’s brass and timpani in Purcell’s funeral music. Hats off to the choristers for their impeccable English enunciation, and congratulations to the shade of Purcell for scoring a more-than-complete performance that combined the Funeral Music for Queen Mary with his three Funeral Sentences in one unbroken sequence. Sibelius should have been so lucky.

This concert was reviewed from the live stream.