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REVIEW Plain text for smartphones & printers

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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symp hony No. 6 in A minor (1903/05) [82:28]
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Daniel Harding
rec. live, 20-22 March 2014, Philharmonie im Gasteig, Munich, Germany
BR KLASSIK 900132 [82.28]

The inspiration of artists is often at its greatest in times of hardship and suffering. Mahler seemed to recognise the inevitability of tragic events in his life, although at the time of writing his Sixth Symphony everything seemed rosy. His family life with Alma and his daughters was contented, he held the prestigious post of music director at the Wiener Hofoper and his music was receiving increased attention. Yet it seems as if Mahler was experiencing an inner sense of dark foreboding while creating his Sixth Symphony, a shadowy and antagonistic score. The great German conductor Bruno Walter, a younger associate of Mahler, described the Sixth Symphony as “bleakly pessimistic; it reeks of the bitter cup of human life.” As if foreshadowing his life events like a premonition within a year of completing the work Mahler lost his daughter Maria to scarlet fever and was himself diagnosed with heart disease. Professionally in Vienna there were problems too as Mahler, highly unpopular within the company, was forced to resign from his post as Hofopern-Direktor.

I have recently attended the Musikfest Berlin 2015 and witnessed the burning passion of Andris Nelsons conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Mahler 6. This new live BR Klassik release pales by comparison. Extremely difficult to pull off in concert Daniel Harding with the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks comes across as if driving a prestige marque that has been filled with the wrong octane fuel. As one expects from this magnificent orchestra there is some beautiful playing in a rather uneven and far from cohesive performance. Absent is the required feeling of engagement as is any consistent degree of emotional tension. Present in the closing movement is a sense of threat and anxiety but sadly it is not sustained. The engineering team has ensured that we hear satisfying, clear and well balanced sound. In the booklet the well written essay by Rüdiger Heinze is an informative read.

In the catalogue there are some rewarding recordings of the Mahler Sixth and I can recommend two live accounts both performed by the Berliner Philharmoniker. From 2004 at the Philharmonie, Berlin, Claudio Abbado moulds the architecture of the score remarkably and inspires his players to great heights. Also from 1966 at the Philharmonie, Berlin, Sir John Barbirolli on Testament provides a captivatingly taut and coherent account.

Under the leadership of Daniel Harding this all feels rather uninspired.

Michael Cookson

Previous review: Simon Thompson


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