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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1811)
Symphony No. 10 (1910/11) (performing version by Deryck Cooke, et. al. (1976/89))
 Wiener Philharmoniker/Daniel Harding
rec. Musikverein, Wien, Grosser Saal, October 2007.
 DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 7347 [78.00]
Experience Classicsonline

First of all, let me say I whole-heartedly agree with Anne Ozorio’s review of this release.  So my contribution here will be to offer a few more comparisons, as well as some general thoughts coming from one who had been skeptical about Harding.
To be honest, I had rather dismissed Harding as a callow youth after hearing his Brahms Third and Fourth a few years back. But now, hearing this, I am happily prepared to convert and declare myself a believer. Granted, it never hurts to have the Vienna Philharmonic as your orchestra, but I think we can all agree that for all its distinctive Viennese style, it is an orchestra that is very dependent on what input the players are given from the podium. After all, the VPO has made no shortage of limp, mediocre recordings over the years. But this isn’t one of them. Indeed, rarely have I heard the VPO sound this electrified since the days of Bernstein. I would even venture to say that in this recording, for the moment at least, Harding has surpassed both his mentor, Sir Simon Rattle, and his fellow countryman Mark Wigglesworth, as master of this essential yet tricky score.
Rattle has recorded it twice, first in a passionate if somewhat rough version from Bournemouth. Then there’s a much more recent Berlin version, which is leagues more sophisticated in style and sound, even if it doesn’t burn quite as bright. Wigglesworth made a riveting live recording in 1993 with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, released by BBC Classical Music Magazine. It demonstrated that Wigglesworth, even then, was a force to be reckoned with in this work, even if his wintertime audience sounded like it was made up of at least three-fifths barking seals. Further flawing that recording is the flagging of the Welsh players in the last movement. They rally for a moving end, but definitely show some fatigue along the way. Having heard Wigglesworth conduct the piece live with the Cleveland Orchestra in 2001 or thereabouts, I’m astonished that no record company has tried to make a proper recording of it with him, for his grasp has grown more powerful over the years. Perhaps Cleveland will issue that live concert at some point as an in-house production.
At any rate, for Deryck Cooke’s performing version of Mahler 10, these three conductors are the royalty, and everyone else an afterthought. And, as I’m happy with the Cooke versions, particularly the third revision, heard here, this leaves most alternate performing versions of the sketch behind, with the possible exception of the Remo Mazzeti, Jr., version, which is very close to Cooke, anyway.
On to particulars, starting with the first movement. With a broad first tempo and unhurried transitions, Harding is a little more spacious than Rattle II, much more so than Rattle I, Wigglesworth, James Levine or Eugene Ormandy. In overall timing, it is within seconds of the Decca recording by Riccardo Chailly, but Harding’s inner tempo variations are more volatile, more highly characterized. Indeed, Chailly’s Berlin Radio Symphony joins all the others who have recorded this piece, including Rattle’s Berliners, who must yield to the sonority of the Vienna Philharmonic. Harding’s sorting of textures is particularly rewarding in the organ-like passage that precedes the big crisis chord, the monster which includes nine out of the 12 notes in the chromatic scale. The lead-in passage glowers blackly, thanks to Harding making sure that the pedal-point bass tones underlying the whole passage don’t get lost in the general rush of sound. The big chord itself is not played for violent effect, though impactful it certainly is. Rather, it seems to emerge naturally out of everything leading up to that point, which is just how it should be. It signals the reaching of a final frontier which the composer is unwilling to step into at that point, and Harding sees that the object of the rest of the movement is the retreat back from that point. Harding handles it masterfully, keeping the after-pangs vivid and disconcerting.
I’ve always had problems with the second movement, not because of its frenetic substance nor its fractal style, but simply because I’ve never felt that any performance really grabbed it by the throat. Rattle and Wigglesworth were close, and I really liked the even faster tempo of Eliahu Inbal’s Denon recording, except that Inbal seemed to sacrifice power in order to gain speed. Finally, here we find a version that combines the reeling delirium of Inbal’s tempo with the full-hammered force of Rattle and Wigglesworth. Harding risks a lot here, showing that he has the nerve to push the orchestra that extra little bit, making this music sound like the natural emotional response to the first movement, instead of an experiment in modernism by a composer who was quickly being bypassed by radical youths like Schoenberg and Ives. The sheer conviction of Harding’s leadership is matched by the devastatingly ripe playing of the VPO strings in the movement’s quieter interludes.
In the Purgatorio third movement, Harding charts a moderate course, shaping expressive gestures strongly while maintaining coherent shifts from tempo to tempo, without the abrupt gear-shifting of Inbal. Chailly and Levine both seem uncertain what to do with the tiny movement, and seem naturally drawn to lead it a little more slowly, in hopes of making it seem larger. Rattle is a little faster than Harding, and perhaps a touch more inflected, but I like the slight poker-faced pallor Harding uses. After all, this is purgatory not hell. Hell comes next.
The importance of hearing this symphony played by the VPO comes to the fore in the fourth movement, where they find the dance and folk-music roots that underpin this unholy brew. Mahler almost effortlessly combines here a demonic scherzo and a warm, smiling ländler. In places, the music seems to run off a cliff and land right in the midst of a pleasant country-waltz in a village far away from the terror which preceded it. And the music acts as if there’s nothing wrong. Only toward the end of the movement do the masks begin to slip away, revealing the waltzers as skeletons in a danse macabre. Wigglesworth and Chailly are on the fast side in this movement, with Inbal pushing it beyond that to an almost hectic tempo. Levine, at the other extreme, is just ponderous. The end of the movement is always tricky sonically. Levine’s recording sorts out the pitches of the various timpani and plucked bass notes by garishly spotlighting. Chailly’s isn’t much better in that respect. Those which don’t spotlight tend to turn into a mush of rumbles. How exactly the Deutsche Grammophon engineers captured the pitches and timbres so clearly here without resorting to crude spotlighting, I have no idea, but it is a sonic triumph.
Unlike Wigglesworth and Rattle in his first recording, Harding regards the bass drum strike at the end of Scherzo II to be the same one that opens the finale, and he handles it thusly here. Having spent twenty minutes backstage talking with Wigglesworth after his Cleveland concert, I found that he keeps the “extra” drum beat in because the aggressive sound is so surprising, audiences have a tendency to titter, and thus the second drum beat effectively quiets them down. I can see his point, though I think it works fine with only one introductory strike, provided that the audience is ready for it. Incidentally, I should add that at the time of his Cleveland concert, Wigglesworth had changed to using a higher-pitched drum instead of a bass drum, pointing out that Mahler wrote in his sketch “large drum,” not “bass drum”. Either way, it is a strange and somber effect. Here, we hear the strikes on bass drum, powerful without providing the infamous run-and-hide-behind-the-furniture aggression of Rattle’s first recording. Though Harding has his own understandings and his own manner of phrasing things, it is evident that his overall approach follows after Rattle’s. Like Rattle, he takes a middle path through the final movement, neither trying to cover up its structural problems with rushing, like Ormandy or Inbal, nor trying to stretch it out, like Levine. The fast, contrapuntal section of the movement is delivered with plenty of edge, helping make up for its gauche brevity. Harding brings back the crisis chord without underpinning it with percussion rolls. It is effective when Rattle does that, but I think the emotional territory of the work is far enough out there by this point that it doesn’t miss anything in intensity if the percussion’s not there. The following initial step beyond the crisis chord is a little shaky and out of tune, perhaps appropriately so, but it quickly pulls together and grows radiant. In some ways, I felt as if I had never really heard the string writing in this piece until I heard the super-saturated tone of the Vienna strings soaring into the closing pages of this work. Even that final heart-attack leap in the violins near the end sounds gorgeous here.
No applause is included here, and indeed, the live provenance of this disc is easy to forget in many places. But there does remain a slight restriction to the sound in places, familiar from many live recordings in the Musikverein over the years. The hall is gorgeous, but it does lose a slight bit of bloom when a large body of audience members are present, absorbing sound. Still, compared to all the past live recordings from Vienna, it must be said that this one is a step up to a new level. So, a triumph then, and one not to be missed.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

see also review by Anne Ozorio
(June 2008 Recording of the Month)

Editor's Note
It is a general MWI policy not to select a recording twice as Recording (or Bargain) of the Month. Otherwise, this review would have earned the CD that rating.


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