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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No.9 in D major
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Harding
rec. 2016, Stockholm
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902258 [82:20]

Daniel Harding has what I suppose one might call an impeccable Mahlerian pedigree and therein lies the problem with this new recording of Mahler’s Ninth. (I assume this is a studio recording - the booklet information is really quite insufficient to make a definitive decision on whether it is otherwise.) It is impeccably played, one can’t quibble with the orthodox tempos; the general lack of indiscretion or tinkering with Mahler’s scoring suggests an experienced hand is at the helm… and yet, the end result is strikingly dull and prosaic.

The best interpreters of Mahler’s Ninth treat the score, although it is entirely orchestral, as something akin to a vocal one, especially in the astonishing first movement – and having written both the Eighth and Das Lied von der Erde before he started work on the Ninth the vocal parallels don’t altogether disappear. I’m not entirely convinced that Harding or his Swedish players are entirely open to the idea that the instrumental duets and terzets in the score are characterised strongly enough as vocal solos. The melody of the first orchestra song, played on a French Horn, isn’t anywhere nearly sculpted enough (Karajan really knows how to shape these bars) likewise the rather understated entry of the trumpet (after Fig.12), which is supposed to break the bleakness, doesn’t really shine brightly enough. Harding’s tendency to fragment the structure of the movement into sections, or stanzas, rather than give it a sense of unification undermines its balance. The transition to the heavy military march (just after Fig.15, at the Wie ein schwerer Kondukt marking) precedes a terrifying passage of violence at fff but it isn’t seamlessly done. The coda, at least, with some exquisite playing from both the violin and oboe, is refined if lacking in depth, but at least the ppp is observed, as are many such markings.

Both the middle movements fare better, though there is nothing particularly distinctive about Harding’s conducting or the Swedish Radio’s playing which mark these out as exceptional or otherwise. Harding at least avoids the trap that Yevgeny Svetlanov, also with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, fell into in his live performance of this symphony (on Weitblick, Stockholm, 21st January 2000). Svetlanov is very measured indeed (taking over 18 minutes, against Harding’s 15:30) and the effect Svetlanov gives is highly abstract. When even the fast dances are slow, and the slow dances feel as if concrete has been poured into your boots, you know something isn’t quite right. Harding is at least able to make a distinction between a Lšndler and a Waltz – Svetlanov struggles with that. Having said that, Svetlanov’s slow tempo at least allows him to make the most of music so wonderfully painting such a grotesque vision on the Burlesque section – something which Harding’s faster tempo rather glosses over. The emphatic weight of the string playing and heavily articulated brass phrasing in Svetlanov’s performance probably sounds closer to Mahler’s ideal of this passage than Harding’s more sanguine view of it.

And sanguine is largely what we get in the Rondo as well, despite the Sehr trotzig marking in the score. Svetlanov and Harding take an almost identical amount of time to get through the movement (12:30) but the results are very different. I think the difference between the two conductors basically comes down to rhythm – Svetlanov has it in spades, Harding is conspicuously lacking in it. The movement is certainly an odd combination: fugato, defiance, sarcasm, though its second subject is none of these things since it prefaces the main theme of the Adagio. It is somewhat surprising that the considerably older conductor (Svetlanov) is brimming with energy throughout this movement, whereas Harding just sounds inert. Harding’s assumption of the second subject, however, is absolutely Apollonian, played with exquisite beauty – though it’s all a bit of a cruel ruse.

Harding’s Adagio is almost two minutes longer than Svetlanov’s and really does disappoint I’m afraid. As with the first movement, I find it to be episodic rather than unified, as if it is hanging together by its climaxes. The playing is actually very fine – string tone is naturally deep, and unforced, and instrumental balances are good – but there is also a sense of aridity to the acoustic which strives to minimise the movement’s very spaciousness. Despite the tempo, it sounds cramped and compressed. You get a lot of sound from the bottom of the orchestra, but the upper registers don’t sound particularly focussed. Neither Svetlanov nor Harding takes an overtly nihilist view of this last movement, and neither conductor really views the entire symphony in dramatically fateful terms either. Svetlanov, however, despite his later quirks, is always an interesting conductor, and his late Mahler conducted in Sweden is anything but uninteresting.

Harding’s more muscular, somewhat more basically symphonic view of the work, underplays a lot of the vocal and chamber-like interactions that the greatest Mahler Ninths unravel; this isn’t a Mahler Ninth that explores much deeper than it needs to, or perhaps it is how the conductor currently views the work.

Marc Bridle

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