In the space between the notes

LSO/Harding Barbican, London
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The Independent Culture

"O SOFT embalmer of the still midnight...". Somehow or other, it's that line from John Keats (and even at the top of a review it catches your breath) which finally distills the atmosphere of Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings and establishes beyond all reasonable doubt the level of a performance's success. Open, "illuminated" string harmonies scent eternity, an everlasting sleep; the voice hangs weightless on every syllable. How does Britten do it, you're thinking, as you gaze at page after page of ever-thinning score? Where's the music? Between the notes, for those who are privileged enough to find it. I'm not quite sure that Ian Bostridge, solo horn David Pyatt, and conductor Daniel Harding quite did.

"O SOFT embalmer of the still midnight...". Somehow or other, it's that line from John Keats (and even at the top of a review it catches your breath) which finally distills the atmosphere of Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings and establishes beyond all reasonable doubt the level of a performance's success. Open, "illuminated" string harmonies scent eternity, an everlasting sleep; the voice hangs weightless on every syllable. How does Britten do it, you're thinking, as you gaze at page after page of ever-thinning score? Where's the music? Between the notes, for those who are privileged enough to find it. I'm not quite sure that Ian Bostridge, solo horn David Pyatt, and conductor Daniel Harding quite did.

They came as close as most mortals do (Peter Pears, for whom it was written, proved himself immortal in this particular case), but one could pinpoint several instances where the magic could, but didn't, happen. David Pyatt's opening solo was racked with nerves. Few are not. Britten was not thinking mortal when he penned these notes. Any accident breaks the spell. And the horn is accident-prone. Bostridge's first entry ­ "The day's grown old; the fainting sun" (Charles Cotton) ­ immediately restored to us that archaic sense and sensibility which seems to emanate from faded pages of manuscript. The voice is so pure, so ethereal, so atmospheric in itself. From another time, another place. And yet so immediate.

But why, in the final stanza of that opening "Pastoral" ­ "And now on benches all are sat" ­ did we not feel the light really start to fade? How was it that Pears and Britten always managed to leaven the text and create a very special distillation of words and music at this point? By finding the space between the notes, by giving themselves (and their audience) a hair's breadth more room (that dirty word ­ rubato) fully to embrace the moment. Or is that now deemed sentimental? No matter, much to enjoy in Bostridge's fine-tuning of the words: the "dark, secret love" (chillingly pointed) of Blake's "Elegy" with Pyatt making great capital of the open-to-closed sounds of Britten's throbbing solos, like knots tightening in the gut; the frightful tweeness of "Queen and huntress" (though I wish Bostridge wouldn't aspirate the runs which slip so floridly around the phrase "excellently bright"); the contemptuous consonants of the "Dirge", though again Pyatt might surely have been less "literal" with the looming pyrotechnics of the "Brig o'Dread".

Gamely, Pyatt was back in the orchestra (where he is now co-principal horn) acting as "bumper" to his co-principal for Richard Strauss's eminantly "horny" Ein Heldenleben ( A Hero's Life). It's hard grasping the fact that Strauss was only a couple of years older than Britten was at the time of his Serenade (namely 30) when he strode forth with this massively ambitious tone poem. Its autobiographical stance, full of self-quotation suggests the hard-earned arrogance of fully maturity. But then you hear a performance like this one from the very young and clearly gifted Daniel Harding, and you realise actually it's all about the confidence ­ no, cockiness ­ of youth.

Earlier Harding exerted enormous physical energy on a very plain performance of Mozart Symphony No 34 (images of sledgehammers and walnuts spring to mind). But Strauss, the hero, did rise to Harding's sweeping gestures, vaulting ambition did win the day. And what an exciting noise it was. The sheer depth of the LSO sound is something now to wonder at, and with the onslaught of a battle scene that is still one of the great instances of radical chic in 20th-century music, Harding reminded us that yes, this really was a whole decade before Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.

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