Daniel Harding & Andrew Staples

Saturday, October 15, 2022

Berliner Philharmonie, Herbert-von-Karajan-Straße, Berlin

Daniel Harding’s thirty-five-minute conducting of Zarathustra (with its Kubrick 2001 associations undimmed) was impressive, beginning with a magnificent ‘Sunrise’ – seamless trumpets, heroic timpani strokes, and, emerging at the zenith, an in-tune organ. From there, glowing strings, searching impressions, plenty of passion, many thrills (no spills), luxurious fullness, intimate kammermusik, Harding never rushing fences, focusing on the Nietzschean philosophy of the moment, not least a distended ‘Of Science’ slowly coiling upwards from subterranean (left-positioned) basses to full chords of crushing power and a long suspenseful mid-point pause before the music sprints and then relaxes into (here) a seductive ‘Dance Song’ (nice solos from the concertmaster, a face new to me in this role), and, following beguiling woodwind interactions – the episodes had been savoured yet made indivisible – it was wholeheartedly into the witching hour, the Midnight Bell striking fearsomely (not always the case) and finally the void that is the coda, high and low frequencies, Man versus Nature, unresolved…

Opening the concert was Unsuk Chin’s eighteen-minute Rocaná, an energetic and iridescent piece, incident-packed, changing timbre and direction bar-by-bar, fuelled by percussion, driven by brass, contrasted with ethereal strings and glinting woodwinds coloured by chimes – as if Planet Earth were becoming an evermore distant speck as the voyage into the unknown continues. Maybe though Rocaná is a little too long and Sat Nav-challenged. The concluding bars, a rhythmically complex toccata (not for the first time in this piece) stop abruptly as if swallowed by a Black Hole, although it must be clarified that Rocaná is firstly concerned with the emitting and refraction of light. The composer (who lives in Berlin) must have been delighted by the suitably brilliant performance.

Between these large-orchestra scores was Ralph Vaughan Williams’s On Wenlock Edge (1909, tenor with piano & string quartet; first heard orchestrated – classically-plus, by the composer – in 1924) setting texts from A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad. The blustery opening was immediately arresting, Andrew Staples delivering the ‘weather forecast’ words with gusto and soon sending shivers of spookiness through the room, the Berliners and Harding (whose grandmother knew Vaughan Williams) entering fully into the selected six poems’ various moods and scenarios, Staples in commanding form, the whole (played continuously) something of a revelation, whether folksy, unfathomable or lyrically rapturous. Wonderfully well done and warmly received by the audience.