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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]

I’ve encountered this artistic conjunction before. Daniel Harding conducted the Swedish RSNO in this very symphony in the 2016 Edinburgh International Festival, and it was one of the highlights of the year for me (review). I relished the prospect of this CD all the more, therefore, and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s one of the finest Mahler 9s that we’ve had, perhaps the best since Saraste, both in the quality of its playing and in the cohesiveness of its artistic vision.

The symphony opens with tone that is both beauteous and laden with regret, and the orchestra cover themselves in glory throughout this beautifully played performance. Just as importantly, however, you get the feeling that Harding really knows where this music is going right from the beginning. Listen to the decisiveness of the timpani stroke that launches the first minor key episode, for example. There is a definite sense of one paragraph ending and another beginning, but not in the way that sounds prissy or mechanical: instead it feels like the beginning of an argument or a discussion. The all-important trumpet cadence that follows also sounds very decisive and leads into a return of the major key theme that is almost unbearably sweet.

However, the mood darkens decisively at the start of the development, with those sinister timpani strokes sounding quite distant, at first, with muted brass scowling over the top. The reappearance of the major theme on strings sounds gentle, nervous, shy here; but oh, so beautiful; all the more so because the music seems to hold on to a hope that is futile. The major climax at 11:22, especially, holds a wisp of hope that is blown away, and that is taken even further at the great climax at 18 minutes. It’s extremely powerful, daring for a moment to suggest that things might be OK, before this is cruelly snatched away, and the brass at this point have the baleful power of the last judgement. When it restarts at the end, the D major theme sounds wilted and unconvincing, and the solo horn at the end seems to wander like a spirit searching for a home.

All of which shows that Harding knows what he is doing. I had total confidence in his understanding of the work, and he took me with him every step without ever casting doubts. You get that in the shorter middle movements, too. The Lšndler begins with a great deal of swagger, and actually quite a lot of fun, before veering dangerously off course and teetering on (or maybe slightly over) the edge of chaos. Then the Rondo Burleske takes no prisoners! It’s incisive in its attack with a very hard edge to the strings from the off.  However, the central interlude is positively beatific in its mood, helped by a luminous gloss on the trumpet line, which seems even more shimmering than usual.  The subsequent return to anarchy is even more harrowing after this, with some extraordinarily colourful work from the orchestral percussion.

The wash of string sound that opens the finale is impressive, if not, perhaps, as lush as you’d expect to hear in Berlin or Vienna.  It grows in power and beauty, however, and what really distinguishes it is the sense of the music being on a definite path, Harding taking both musicians and listener on a journey towards the heartbreaking end-point. You get that most especially in the section around the 15-minute mark that threatens to break into atonality. Indeed, Harding points up details here that I’d never really noticed before, particularly in the interaction between the strings and the brass. The orchestra’s playing is marvellous here, too, forming a hugely impressive package. The horn solos, for example, are clear and plangent, dripping with emotion without being overwhelmed by it, and at the crepuscular tone that regularly takes over the music is utterly convincing in its darkness and emaciated colour. The final descent, which begins at 21:48, is perfectly paced, slowly disappearing inside itself, gradually giving up the ghost with each iteration, and Harding’s structural judgement is matched by some brilliantly nuanced violin playing that left me utterly convinced (and not searching for more favourable comparisons).

Mahler 9 is such a deeply personal work that every listener will have their own utterly distinctive favourite performance, and I admit that my live experience may well have made me more favourable disposed to this disc than others who didn't have the same encounter (my colleague Marc Bridle, for example). If pushed, I admit I’d probably still put slightly higher the accounts of Rattle, Karajan or Abbado, all of whom recorded it twice and brilliantly. However, I’ll always hold a candle for this one, too. It is, I repeat, the finest Mahler 9 we’ve had in years. Harding and his orchestra should be very proud.

Simon Thompson

Previous reviews: Marc Bridle ~ Dan Morgan

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