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There has been such a blitz of new principal conductors in London – four taking up their posts or being announced during the past year – that it may have gone unnoticed that Daniel Harding is arriving as principal guest conductor at the London Symphony Orchestra. There can hardly be anybody left for all those vacancies with orchestras in the US.
Like any good employer, the LSO is taking the new boy round to meet the audiences: a series of concerts at the Barbican under the title Daniel Harding: a Portrait and a 16-concert tour of East Asia next month, taking in China, Japan, Malaysia and Taiwan.
Harding’s biography starts with the story of how he cheekily wrote to Simon Rattle asking for advice on conducting when he was in his teens and his mentor has obviously been a big influence since. One of Rattle’s favourite pieces is Mahler’s Symphony No.7 and he is famous for having introduced the Berlin Philharmonic to Rameau, so guess what were the two works on the programme for the opening concert of Daniel Harding: a Portrait on Thursday? Even Harding’s gestures look like Rattle’s.
Yet the results are diametrically opposite. The dances from Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie were not quirky, as Rattle would have made them, but buoyant and stylish. Ever adaptable, the players of the LSO, reduced to a chamber-music-sized group, offered nicely pointed rhythms and light textures.
Harding’s Mahler was typically direct and single-minded, where Rattle always pulls the music around. The Symphony No.7 takes its individual character from the menacing colouring that lurks round its dark corners, notably in the inner movements. That aspect was not especially telling here, as Harding is not much concerned with atmosphere – the flickering shadows of the Nachtmusik were rendered bright and clear – but for drive and a clear- headed sense of why every note mattered, this was a strong, if aggressively noisy, performance. The grip on detail suggested that Harding had prepared the orchestra thoroughly. The LSO could do with some of that when it has Valery “no-time-for-rehearsal” Gergiev as its new principal conductor.
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