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Mendelssohn and Mahler: London Symphony Orchestra; Christian Tetzlaff (violin), Daniel Harding (conductor). Barbican Hall, London 20.11.2009 (JPr)

Mahler’s Tenth Symphony is a particular favourite of Daniel Harding who conducted it for his debut with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in 2004. His view seems to be that although the symphony may be the product of the composer’s mind in great turmoil, there is still something positive and life-affirming about the music. As is well known, the symphony was left incomplete at the time of Mahler’s death in 1910 but its five movement form, the leading musical lines and most of the instrumentation was clear from the unfinished manuscript. Harding himself has said that ‘The body is Mahler's; the clothes have sometimes been chosen for him.’ It was Deryck Cooke and his collaborators Berthold Goldschmidt, Colin and David Matthews who devised a performing version from Mahler's draft (it is important to note performing version not completion) and this has become the version of choice for most orchestras. Harding has also said ‘I think one of the difficulties of the piece is that the music is so unexpected and so radical. If you listen to it for the first time with the suspicion one has when one isn't sure of the pedigree of a piece, then it's very possible to be confused by the modernity of the musical language.’

For Harding that ‘modernity’ is established right at the start in the opening Adagio, the one movement that Mahler fully completed, barring revisions he undoubtedly would have subsequently made to it. The opening searching theme in the violas is dark and ambiguous and there follows a deeply consoling theme in strings and trombones bringing along greater hope. Halfway through the movement comes the great nine-note dissonance, a great ‘scream’ chord, aptly described by Harding as ‘Pure Edvard Munch in music’. This seemed to be Mahler’s reaction to the discovery of his wife Alma's affair with Walter Gropius.

Mahler’s turbulent emotional state at this time is portrayed more clearly in this symphony that in any of his others. There are his graffiti on the manuscript of the short B flat minor third movement, which he called at first ‘Purgatorio oder Inferno’ which reads ‘Erbarmen!’ (‘Have mercy!’ is Amfortas's cry in Wagner's Parsifal). Then there are the muffled drum strokes that pervade the fifth movement when Mahler writes for Alma: ‘Du allein weisst was es bedeutet’ (‘Only you understand what it means’). This refers to a moment shared with Alma as a fireman's funeral procession passed below their apartment in New York. Back in Europe - and in the aftermath of coping with Alma’s infidelity - death still haunts the composer. The last movement culminates where the violins soar up to the ‘sigh’ of a high G sharp and Mahler's scrawl ‘Almschi’ (his pet name for his wife) on the manuscript. Underscored by a mournful flute solo (Mahler’s specific instrumentation) there is a sense of a ‘false dawn’ passing on to the serenity of Mahler’s reaffirmation of his love for Alma.

I have heard two performances of this symphony recently which have extinguished all the doubts about its visionary strangeness I have had from less assured performances. Firstly there was the Leipzig Gewandhaus under Chailly at this year’s Proms. That was overwhelmingly harrowing, draining and only fleetingly gave solace; a less than muffled bass drum teetered the whole symphony on the edge of a Hieronymus Bosch-like abyss from which it never really escaped. With Daniel Harding and his exemplary LSO players, the symphony was again another disturbing ride from initial despair through to hard-won resolution; with its fragile victory of life over death. Harding’s account had a moving eloquence missing from Chailly however; there was no angularity to the performance, all the movements had one breath and an arch-like structure and this worked for me equally well.

After the hushed tenderness of the opening in the violas, the Adagio became a danse macabre (between Gustav and Alma?) without redemption and then there were the most realistic death throes ever depicted in music to be heard in it. Harding highlighted the grotesqueness that seems to intrude on the Ländler of the subsequent Scherzo. If I have a criticism, it is that there was a lack of sombre melancholy to the Purgatorio which seemed much too genial. More geniality and a Straussian dance fervour exhausted itself in the second Scherzo before gloom set in again : leading to the Finale with its apocalyptic drum-strokes and the trajectory which built instinctively towards the final consoling - though rather bitter-sweet - resolution.

The orchestra responded with playing of the great beauty and refinement. Highlights were immaculate solo work from leader, Tomo Keller, from principal trumpet, Philip Cobb and principal flute, Gareth Davies. For the flautist in particular, a concert of Mahler 10 will always be a special occasion : his blog tells the story of how this symphony, and especially the flute solo near the opening of the final movement, came to embody not just the transformative power of the whole piece, but his recovery from testicular cancer. Returning to the orchestra after months of operations and chemotherapy, Davies found he had lost his essential passion for music, until he played Mahler 10 with Daniel Harding in 2004, and came to that flute solo in the Finale. It is an inspiring story and Gareth Davies was deservedly singled out by the conductor at the end of the performance.

The first half of the concert featured the cosy familiarity of the popular Mendelssohn Violin Concerto played by Christian Tetzlaff. Undoubtedly this German violinist must have played this work numerous times but there was no sense of the routine in a fresh and luminous interpretation full of expressive intensity. Perhaps it was all a little too hard-driven at times and there might have been just a touch too much vibrato employed here and there, but Tetzlaff brings a yearning, searching quality and sharply defined rhythmic phrasing to the first movements and a virtuosic deftness of wistful intimate textures to the other two. In all this he was equally matched by the orchestra and Daniel Harding’s attentive accompaniment. After the prolonged ovation from a large audience filling the Barbican Hall, Tetzlaff gave us a small – but perfectly formed – beguiling encore of Bach’s Gavotte en Rondeau from his Violin Partita No.3.

Jim Pritchard

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