LSO/Harding, Barbican, London

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The Independent Culture

The London Symphony Orchestra's first Barbican concert of the new year was not a happy one.

The London Symphony Orchestra's first Barbican concert of the new year was not a happy one. Sometimes the need for a Society for the Protection of Orchestras from Conductors seems vital, especially from young ones, and especially, perhaps, from anyone hailed as "the leading British conductor of his generation". Daniel Harding, recently appointed principal guest conductor of the LSO, was in charge.

The programme comprised Schumann's Violin Concerto and Mahler's Fourth Symphony. The Schumann is an odd piece, written at the end of the composer's life, shortly before he tried to drown himself in the Rhine. He claimed that Schubert had appeared to him as a ghost and dictated the theme of the slow movement. Joachim, for whom it was written, refused to play the concerto, believing it to be damaged by Schumann's mental condition. But the piece is full of marvellous moments - in particular, the beginning of the slow movement. (It was too bad that the cellos and lower strings had no beat to follow.)

Gordan Nikolitch, the LSO's fabulous leader, was the soloist. Harding began too fast, failing to prepare musically for Nikolitch's first entry, so allowing no time for his opening chord to be heard. Nikolitch is a player of immense intensity and faultless musical intelligence. If only Harding had bothered to listen to him and indeed to match his soloist's approach. Why the huge, hacking gestures? But then, why let young conductors loose on works of such subtlety and complexity?

Mahler's Fourth fared even worse. Schumann's classical-sized orchestra was replaced by a huge number of players, as required by Mahler. The string layout was completely changed, presumably for musical reasons and to achieve the right balance. But right away those sleigh bells sounded uncertain - not because of placing but because of uncertainty of tempo.

And that was a feature of the entire performance. Orchestral players anticipate how and when they will play in relation to the beat of the conductor. But when the beat is all over the place, only trouble can ensue. And how it did! At the beginning of the slow movement, Harding's beat was so unclear that it was anybody's guess - alas the double basses - where to play the second note. And further on, the bassoon never came in, no doubt flummoxed.

Funniest was the huge climax, when Harding's mighty gesture was entirely ignored by the orchestra. Less funny was the point at the very end of the movement when the work virtually fell to pieces: Harding had given no beat. Lisa Milne sang sweetly and musically, something of a triumph in this troubled performance.

Harding displayed little understanding of the work or of what or whom he should be conducting at any point. He takes up his position as principal guest at the start of the 2006-07 season - just as well if a collective nervous breakdown is not to be inflicted on this great orchestra.