<preform>London Symphony Orchestra / Harding, Barbican Hall, London</br>Matthew Wadsworth / Carolyn Sampson, Wigmore Hall, London</preform>

Never mind the man with the stick
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It's a sad fact that the leaders of great orchestras are often overlooked in reviews. Yet they, as much as any visiting or resident conductor, seal the sound and style of their orchestra; coaxing a particular blend from 40 or more fellow string players, gesturing clearly enough to secure a wind or brass section stranded by enigmatic or inept conducting, and playing those often fiendishly difficult and exposed solos that some composers throw into the symphonic fabric. That a good leader can make bad conducting look better is a given. Indeed, sometimes a good leader can make you wonder why the guy on the podium is there at all.

It's a sad fact that the leaders of great orchestras are often overlooked in reviews. Yet they, as much as any visiting or resident conductor, seal the sound and style of their orchestra; coaxing a particular blend from 40 or more fellow string players, gesturing clearly enough to secure a wind or brass section stranded by enigmatic or inept conducting, and playing those often fiendishly difficult and exposed solos that some composers throw into the symphonic fabric. That a good leader can make bad conducting look better is a given. Indeed, sometimes a good leader can make you wonder why the guy on the podium is there at all.

Such was the case last Sunday, when Gordan Nikolitch, leader of the London Symphony Orchestra since 1998, removed his white tie, handed over the reins to co-principal Carmine Lauri, and played Schumann's fretful, lyrical Violin Concerto like the work of chamber music that it very nearly is. Responsive to the dark call of the clarinet and the cautionary voice of the bassoon, supported by his own section, smooth and sweetly contained of tone, and prismatically bright in the last movement's delicate spiccato and double-stopping, his was a sensitive, alert and generous performance that made me wonder, not for the first time, how susceptible we are to the relentless publicity campaigns that record companies launch for their high profile soloists. Who needs steroid-laden schmaltz in their Schumann? Not me.

Conductor Daniel Harding's interpretation of the same work, largely ignored by the orchestra, was a thing apart from that of Nikolitch, and I have to say that I'm jolly glad it was the latter version that we heard. Amidst what seems to be a general swing towards the subtlety and nuance of chamber music in the performance of Schumann's orchestral works, Harding, who takes up the post of Principal Guest Conductor of the LSO in 2006, is a refusenik. His gestures are Wagnerian; turning private resolve into bombast, and passing doubt into a full-blown identity crisis. Sadly, the one point in this work where he might have been of practical assistance - coordinating the entries of the horns and lower strings in the opening of the second movement - was lost to late-Romantic angst. Of course, there is room for interpretive difference but conducting with one's arms permanently extended as though reaching for a life-belt is more appropriate to Also Sprach Zarathustra than an intimately scored mid 19th-century concerto.

In Mahler's Fourth Symphony, Harding seemed happier with the general aesthetic. But there was still a sense that he was attempting to fit some received notion of what "a great conductor" should look like rather than concentrating on effectively communicating changes in tempi and dynamics to his orchestra. The neurotic key shifts of the second movement worked well enough, but odd clunks in the ensemble and several mismanaged rallentandi - including one in the opening phrase of the symphony - distracted from the creamy sound of the strings and Mahler's arch "Freund Hain" motif (Nikolitch again). In the third movement, Harding's phrases dragged, losing coherence, and from London's most technically adept orchestra this was a surprisingly disorganised performance. Only in the ecstasy of the final movement did Harding capture any magic (one hour and 40 minutes into the concert), and this was largely in response to the secure radiance of soprano Lisa Milne's performance.

At 29, Harding is an infant in an industry dominated by the brilliance of those in their sixties and seventies. Last week, he was quoted as saying "I've got 60 years to get it right." But few of today's greats were under the kind of pressure that Harding is experiencing when they were of a similar age. In any case, age and ability are not inextricably linked. For every Mackerras, Haitink or Davis there are a dozen septuagenarian routiniers whose batons have gone off the boil. Harding's comment, however well-intentioned, begs the question of why any audience, let alone that of the LSO, might wait so long for him to get it right? Yes, he has promise; most particularly in Mozart, Britten and Rameau, where there is a clear narrative drive. But is such promise enough to sustain a position as weighty as Principal Guest Conductor of the LSO? Unless he chooses his repertoire very carefully, Harding doesn't have 60 years. He doesn't have 20. He has just over 18 months.

The following evening in the Wigmore Hall, in the intricate metaphysics of Robert Johnson's Fantasia, lutenist Matthew Wadsworth found the sense of rapture and transformation that was missing from Harding's Mahler, and found it again and again in repertoire drawn from two decades that changed the sound of English music. No, this is not music designed for a concert hall. But Wadsworth and his soprano Carolyn Sampson seemingly shrank the space.

Nominally a programme of songs, dances and airs by Dowland and Johnson, Away Delights focused for the most part on the younger, more successful and royally favoured of the two composers. Sampson - one of very few singers who can adapt to the different demands of opera and lute songs - gave elegantly sculpted accounts of Johnson's theatre songs from The Duchess of Malfi, Cymbeline, and Beaumont and Fletcher's The Captain. Most of these I knew, but even those I didn't were clear of diction, mood and meaning. Sampson's voice is getting heavier now, and you could sense her relief when Johnson's more declamatory songs allowed her to use her high notes in the decorations. Nonetheless she uses her middle and low registers artfully, and her account of Dowland's desolate masterpiece In darkness let me dwell was chilling. Though lacking the crystalline technique of Paul O'Dette or Nigel North, Wadsworth communicates easily, thoughtfully, and with a clear sense of shared pleasure. For his quiet, confident passion for this contained, deep repertoire alone, you can forgive the odd buzz or twang from an over-zealous thumb.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

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