City of London Festival, St Paul’s Cathedral, London – review

The City of London’s unique selling point is its access to historic venues, including some that the public rarely sees inside. This year’s line-up includes the usual selection of livery halls, several Wren churches, the Mansion House (always a favourite), and St Paul’s Cathedral – the most magnificent of all, but also the most problematic.

A concert in this awe-inspiring space has to be planned carefully. For the first of the festival’s events in the cathedral this year conductor Daniel Harding and the London Symphony Orchestra offered a novel programme: Penderecki’s brief Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima led straight into Bruckner’s unfinished Symphony No. 9 (in theory, it might have been round the other way, with the Penderecki providing a leap into modernity to “finish” the Bruckner).

Through the momentous echo of St Paul’s odd pieces can shine. Penderecki’s Threnody is possibly odd enough. Written for 52 solo stringed instruments, it starts with rapid-fire squeaking, like a multitude of voices in panic, and then leads into a longer, numbed passage, in which there is a sense of aftershock, broken by slow, communal wailing. Even from a seat near the front under the dome it all sounded rather distant. Heaven only knows what the people sitting at the back heard, but perhaps Penderecki’s unusual mix of sounds worked.

The Bruckner symphony was a more traditional choice for this venue. As organist at the monastery of Sankt Florian, Bruckner was well placed to know how music sounds in large religious buildings. Most of his symphonies seem half-designed like organ improvisations, the unfinished Ninth as much as any.

The massive climaxes thundered; the long, slow melodies rolled around the cathedral as though time was of no matter to them. Whenever he reached one of Bruckner’s (many) dramatic silences, Harding thoughtfully held on for an age until the last echo of the chord before had finally rumbled out of earshot.

No doubt the LSO played well for him, though it was difficult to tell, so oddly skewed was the orchestral sound. Perhaps Bruckner was in seventh heaven hearing this performance from his celestial resting-place. For the rest of us on terra firma a performance in a decent concert hall could only be preferable.

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