Classical

LSO / Harding Barbican, London
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The Independent Culture
Daniel Harding is 21, prodigiously talented, and bearer of the Simon Rattle seal of approval. Give the man a break. Still, he looks like he's handling it. He hurried slowly to the Barbican podium last Thursday night. Always a good sign. He appeared cool, contained in possession. Then the first release of energy, the first commanding gestures, his whole body involved. A startled pizzicato, a yawning chasm of string basses: the opening page of Britten's Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge demanding that attention be paid. It was. It will be.

We've already heard tell of Harding's technical prowess, his ability to delineate, to rationalise, even the most complex of scores at sight. But the first thing you notice when seeing him in action is the extent to which the expression, the phrasal shaping - big phrases, big shapes - is communicated in the technique. The gesture is truly an extension of the feeling. And the feeling, the spirit, is abundant. All right, so the technique is a little overworked as yet, so he needs to economise, conserve, channel more of his energies into characterisation. He might, for instance, have tweaked more knowingly, more capriciously, at the parodistic allusions in the Britten. As a composite, a personality profile of Frank Bridge, the man, Harding's reading was a little one-sided: robust, imposing, sustained (a young conductor sharing a young composer's relish in expanding the limits of his string ensemble), searing in its Mahlerian allusions - like the great sweeping portamenti of the "Funeral March" - but short on wit and irony. Still, that's what experience is all about: the reasons for the notes have to do with living, not learning.

And living the inner-city nightmare is probably a good deal easier if you happen to have been born in 1975. Certainly, the grind and gridlock, the sound and fury of Bartok's Miraculous Mandarin grows more, not less, immediate with each passing year. Kick-start the LSO in this piece, and you're running for cover. But you have to show them who's boss. Their biggest, brightest and brassiest sonorities need harnessing a little more warily. Too loud, too soon - that's not lethal, that's just loud. In other respects, Harding's control was impressive. His patience, his nose for atmosphere can be mesmeric. Andrew Marriner's long-limbed clarinet enticements were all the more subversive for their chilling context - real frozen moments - and while Harding surely pushed his luck in the foreplay of the long dance episode (very languid, very slow), the outcome was tantalisingly, knowingly seductive.

The evening was dedicated to the memory of Toru Takemitsu, whose East/ West adventures gave rise to some of the most iridescent dreamscapes of our century. To the Edge of Dream for Guitar and Orchestra 1983) brought an over-amplified John Williams to reinvent the piece as "to the forefront of consciousness". One could only wonder at how much more beautiful and elusory the effect might have been if our protagonist were more of an orchestral voice than soloist. The irony is that Williams himself is so self-effacing. Prior to the interval he had romped gamefully through a hummably innocuous confection entitled Concerto Antico by Richard Harvey: one of those travels with my guitar, here and there, now and then, postcards from Europe kind of pieces. Sony should put out the Cantilena as a single: very pretty, very Rodrigoesque, with cooling marimba to stop it caramelising. But I'm still trying to get my head around a finale where Philip Glass meets Tudor England. What would Takemitsu have made of that?

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