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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 6 (1903-5)
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Daniel Harding
rec. live, Philharmonie im Gasteig, Munich, 2014
BR KLASSIK 900132 [82:28]

Daniel Harding hasn’t done much Mahler on disc so far, though what he has recorded has been significant, most notably his Tenth with the Vienna Philharmonic. This is his first recorded Sixth, and it’s very good. He is partnered brilliantly by the Bavarian RSO, who do a great job of bringing the composer’s and the conductor’s vision to life. The recording engineers play their part, too, with brilliantly inclusive recorded sound that manages to take in the whole scope of the score as well as illuminating its details. That’s at its finest in the introduction to the finale, where the swirling strings are utterly clear from top to bottom, with the celesta and trumpets sitting perfectly naturally in the soundscape.

As for the interpretation, it’s exciting from the off. The string march that opens the first movement has proper bite to it, and sounds fantastically incisive in its intonation. The drum roll and A major/minor chord is clear as a bell, and Alma’s theme has a wonderful sweep to it. There is then brilliant energy to the start of the development, with the brass bright and clear. The pastoral interlude has a lovely air of mystery, and I especially love the way the winds played their second theme with such a suggestion of unknown potential. Harding directs the whole thing convincingly, with the sense of a whole rather than fracturing it into episodes.

The slow movement — which comes second — opens with a beautifully innocent, almost na´ve string theme, and it’s those strings that carry the weight of the whole movement though, cleverly, behind the scenes there is always a gently suggested sense that all is not well. The horn solo, by the way, is an absolute knockout. The great climax that occurs around the 12-minute mark is marvellous: the cowbells may be slightly occluded but that's all that's wrong with it, and the ending is beautiful, with just the right mix of pathos and resignation. The Scherzo, like the first movement, has great energy – almost demonic at times – and the horns whoop brilliantly at the theme’s first reappearance. However the pastoral sections are really quite beautiful – not just Altvaterisch – and lollop along convincingly without being ungainly.

The finale begins with that impressive clarity of sound, and the solo tuba feels as though it is sounding within a void. There is a great feeling of scale right from the off, and it spurs Harding on to his finest, too: the section with low brass and winds, for example, builds brilliantly before exploding into the drum-beat rhythm, exhibiting masterly directorial control. There is an edge of malevolence to the violins as they give the first theme of the Allegro, and from that point on it’s one convincing effect after another. I was pretty disappointed with the first hammer-blow, which passes to little effect, but the second unleashed mayhem, with screaming violins and gong really raising the tension. Then at the 27-minute mark, during the last and most promising stretch of major key music, all seems to be building to a positive triumph. When this fails to materialises the mood is as though something had been cruelly snatched away, and everything that follows feels pale and underdone, especially the doleful brass chorale that ushers in the final A minor chord, which is utterly unanswerable.

There is definitely a lot to enjoy, therefore, and while it might not stand long-term competition with the likes of Abbado or Rattle, it's a disc that makes you glad that orchestra — or, in this case, radio — own labels exist because otherwise this performance would have disappeared and it's well worth repeated hearings. The recording is live, but there is no applause and the audience are very well behaved.

Incidentally, the graphic on the cover is a measure of the conductor’s and four of the musicians’ heartbeats around the time of the second hammer-blow: many of them (including Harding) were wearing ECG devices to monitor their heartbeats during the concert. The booklet tells us that “Daniel Harding, in particular, performed at peak capacity. One conclusion can already be drawn: the stress situation of a musician is comparable to that of a professional athlete or a Formula One driver.” Sadly, no more insightful analysis is provided.

Simon Thompson



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