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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 5 in D major
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Harding
rec. 2016, Berwaldhallen, Stockholm
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902366 [73:23]

In his review of the first instalment of Daniel Harding’s Mahler cycle for harmonia mundi with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra in Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, my MWI colleague Marc Bridle dubbed it “strikingly dull and prosaic”, whereas other equally experienced Mahler critics elsewhere have lauded it – but admittedly more for its audio engineering excellence than its interpretative stature. Of course, Harding, young as he is, already has a small Mahler discography of recordings made with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (No. 6), the Mahler Symphony Orchestra (No. 4) and the VPO (No. 10). All of these have elicited similarly diverse responses; in my own review elsewhere of the latter, I acknowledged this while endorsing it for favouring “repose over thrills”, all of which indicates that the second offering in this series is just as likely to be controversial.

It is nigh on impossible to make meaningful comparisons or firm recommendations when there are so many great recordings of this symphony; I can only cite my own favourites, which are those conducted by Frank Shipway, Rudolf Barshai and Karajan and try to measure Harding against them. However, we can at least start by recognising that it poses a particular and specific challenge; here I take the liberty of quoting from the survey of recordings of this symphony by the late MWI contributor and Mahler guru Tony Duggan:

“Mahler’s Fifth dramatises in music the whole concept of change and contrast in sympathy with his development as composer and man at that point in his life. It is such a supreme test for conductor and orchestra because it challenges them to explore extremes of expression whilst maintaining a unity of purpose that ultimately leads to satisfaction. Do anything else and it doesn’t cohere since it travels the greatest emotional distance of all his works…it’s a tall order to cover all bases and some conductors don’t even come close…Most are good at the dramatic/tragic/dark end of the work but fewer appreciate the need to bring out the fantastic/joyful/light end that balances the piece across the whole range. Even [fewer] can balance the two perfectly.”

So does Harding achieve this here?

In a word, no. I find the opening lacklustre and even turgid; I hear no inner pulse to the music, only a kind of grim doggedness. Hesitant to condemn it at my first hearing, for comparison I played the opening five or six minutes of Barshai’s, Shipway’s and Karajan’s recordings, where I hear more musicality and drama. The superbly engineered sound compensates for the deliberateness of Harding’s interpretation by permitting the listener to hear great detail in the orchestral proceedings but the slack, etiolated phrasing robs it of inner life. Harding simply takes the opening too slowly then in the restatement of the main theme, suddenly rushes before relapsing into ponderousness for its third appearance, stuttering and staggering towards the conclusion. The actual sound – of both the orchestra and the recording – is superb but interpretatively it feels fragmented and, in some ways, the forensic clarity of the sound robs the music of atmosphere.

Skipping forward to the Adagietto, as another touchstone for assessing any recording of this symphony, I derive no great sense of feeling behind its execution here; despite the beauty of the orchestral playing, to my ears the emotion is externally applied and I am not sufficiently moved by what I hear. Karajan and Shipway their dynamics and phrasing so as to make the music breathe and sigh like a heartsick lover; the first great climax at just under four minutes in is overwhelming with them, whereas with Harding it almost passes unnoticed – in fact I “rewound” to hear that passage again , became distracted and, as if to prove my point, missed it altogether, the playing there is so bland and nerveless. I am never sure if I am entirely convinced by Barshai’s more intense and much brisker way with that movement but one thing is certain: it has far more impact and personality than Harding’s anodyne approach.

My observations regarding the rest of the symphony are of a piece. I would not say, for example, that the opening of the second movement is played as Mahler instructed “With the greatest vehemence”; just compare it with the attack of Barshai’s youth orchestra. The slow, lyrical sections seem a little flaccid to me, although, as always, the playing per se is lovely, if without the lustre of the BPO or the RPO. The tam-tam smash in the coda is tame. The third movement is appropriately paced but there is a lack of lilt in its rustic, three-quarter-time flow. The finale is livelier, more rhythmically taut and builds inexorably to a splendid climax – the horns are especially admirable - but by then it’s a bit late for the cavalry.

For all its sonic, technical and aesthetic virtues, I cannot recommend this solid but uninspiring version as preferable to the greatest accounts.

Ralph Moore


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