A sour-looking couple fled the Philharmonie auditorium after their hour of Beethoven, doubtless concerned lest their ears be sullied by something nasty and modern. Their fears would probably have been confirmed by the early minutes of Jörg Widmann’s Babylon Suite, because this reworking of themes and episodes from his 2012 opera had an uncompromising dissonance. Had they stayed, however, after 33 minutes of eclecticism for big orchestra even Mr and Mrs Po-Face might have found themselves humming the odd tune.

Daniel Harding © Julian Hargreaves
Daniel Harding
© Julian Hargreaves

By the rivers of his Babylon, Widmann has set down a sonic showpiece for 90 players including a Messiaenic panoply of percussion, finger-clicks and and vocal interjections that would honour Leonard Bernstein, and an accordion. Most of all, we were in big bass heaven, with outsized brass and wind instruments at every turn. It must be a blast to play in. Audiences, for their part, may mistrust the Suite’s vacillations between tonal and atonal extremes, but the composer justifies his approach by close reference to the opera’s unfolding scenario, a tale of forbidden love between a Jew and a Babylonian.

Waves break on a savage shore in a virtuosic display of orchestral texture, until melody cuts through in a lyrical slow section. Chaos is dispelled by banal music that smacks ever so slightly of Michel Legrand, then returns in a presto section that batters the ears like a plague of armoured locusts. So it proceeds like a musical see-saw until, late on, grotesque scrapings of nightclub songs are scooped off the floor and smeared onto our ears. Along the way there have been distracting fragments of well-known works such as Fauré’s Pavane, while for his closing flourish Widmann chooses a wrong-footing fusion of eerie effects and a traditional waltz. Whether or not the listener is convinced by the Babylon Suite’s all-the-fun-of-the-fair character, there is no denying that it’s a startling work.

Daniel Harding and the Orchestre de Paris threw their heart, soul and kitchen sink at music that must have felt like a belated Christmas party after the disciplined interpretations of Beethoven that had gone before. Renaud Capuçon was an aristocratic interpreter of the Violin Concerto; he seemed to revel in the friendly resonance of the Philharmonie. Conductor and soloist negotiated the opening movement’s arpeggios and rapid runs at an energetic pace but with admirable control; there were no fireworks, just committed music-making, and a cadenza that the Frenchman played almost as a serenade.

Harding allowed air to infuse the slow movement and Capuçon’s sound ascended buoyantly on warm thermal currents until, in the rondo finale, soloist and conductor swooped down together and danced their way to a joyous finale. The final cadenza was effortlessly dazzling.

Early in his career, such lightness and speed used to be Harding’s default settings. These days he is less afraid to add weight to a reading, and he demonstrated as much in the opening bars of the Leonore Overture no. 2 (actually the first overture of that name that Beethoven composed). It was an arresting rhetorical statement. Yet big was never leaden thanks to the conductor’s trick of anticipating downbeats, and his brilliantly dramatised account had all the characteristics of a tone poem. It was a magnificent quarter-hour.