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31 Aug 2014

Powerful Mahler Symphony no 2 Harding, BBC Proms London

Triumphant! An exceptionally stimulating Mahler Symphony No 2 from Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, BBC Prom 57 at the Royal Albert Hall. Harding's Mahler Tenth performances (especially with the Berliner Philharmoniker) are pretty much the benchmark by which all other performances are assessed. Harding's Mahler Second is informed by such an intuitive insight into the whole traverse of the composer's work that, should he get around to doing all ten together, he'll fulfil the long-held dream of "One Grand Symphony", all ten symphonies understood as a coherent progression of developing ideas.

Gustav Mahler : Sympohony no 2 in C, Daniel Harding, Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London 29h August 2014. A review by Anne Ozorio


Pierre Boulez used to speak about the importance of trajectory, that is, the sense of direction that drives a symphony. Even the first bars zinged with purpose: Harding setting the trajectory in motion right from the start. When Bernard Haitink conducted this symphony at the Proms in 2006, he chose tempi so slow that it was hard for his orchestra to sustain the line, suggesting the approach of death. Harding's tempi are less extreme, but equally purposeful. He emphasized the inherent tension between forward-reaching lines and tight staccato, suggesting that a powerful transformation is underway even in the presence of annihilation. Harding showed how Mahler's themes of transcendance and renewal were in place even at this point in his career. The tension Harding creates suggests the power of what is to come, even when it's curtailed, temporarily, by death. If this is a funeral procession, it operates on many levels. The pastoral woodwinds might suggest happy memories of the past. Quiet, purposeful pizzicato, like footsteps, lead into savage brass climaxes, creating the sense of hard-won stages on a difficult ascent. Perhaps we can already hear the "mountains" in Mahler's Third Symphony, rising ever upwards.

Then the sudden, anguished descent into silence. The Luftpause which follows is very much part of meaning, "inaudible music" during which one might contemplate the finality of death. Harding sat on a chair, head bowed. Instead, the Royal Albert Hall ushers let in dozens of latecomers, totally destroying the moment of reverence. Someone needs to tell the staff that Luftpauses are not intervals.

The second movement began with gleeful energy, leading into lyrical Ländler themes, which will recur again through many symphonies to come. Although this movement is marked "Nicht eilen", it should be leisurely rather than slow, for something positive is stirring. Perhaps we begin to hear the Pan theme for Mahler's Third, as summer marches in. Harding took particular care to bring out the life force in the third movement, Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt, an illustration of which stands in Mahler's composer hut. Like Dionysius, St Anthony is drunk. Perhaps the song is used to indicate the futility of words, which is rather droll, since in this symphony Mahler begins to use voice as part of his orchestral toolbox. Harding might be more taken with the inherent energy in the leaping figures which suggest the movement of fish, leaping upwards, and swimming away. Exuberant playing here, the passages undertaken with great agility.

Perhaps it's included to illustrate the futility of words, but the liveliness of the writing suggests energy and escape from the sombre mood of the first movement. Harding led his orchestra into a glorious climax: summer is marching in, underlined yet again by the exuberant Fischpredigt allusion to leaping fish.

Excellent use of offstage trumpets and trombones, even if some sounds went slightly awry. These sections aren't merely for show, since they illustrate cosmological meaning. Harding's musicians may have to run up and down a lot, but by doing so they literally connect earthly reality with the promise of Heaven. This isn't the "Resurrection" symphony for nothing. Angels blow horns and trumpets, as do Alpine herdsmen and farmers. Mahler's making connections on all levels. Very possibly, we might think ahead to Mahler's Fourth with its cataclysmic burst of energy. What thrust Harding got from his players, trumpets leading! Processional footsteps yet again, this time confident and assured. Having shown us how near we are to the summit, Harding and his orchestra descended once more into quiet reverence. The trumpet solo, calling from the highest reaches oif the Royal Albert Hall, seemed to glow forever, like a sunset. The hushed voices of the Swedish Radio Choir and the Philharmonia Chorus were so well blended that their impact was enhanced: an image of vast panoramas and repose, from which Christianne Stotijn's voice rose with dignity.

"Aufersteh'n, ja aufersteh'n wirst du, Mein Staub, nach kurzer Ruh!" Stotijn, Kate Royal, the choruses and orchestra united in a blaze of glorious sound. Crashing cymbals, the klang of metal on metal and a thunderous timpani roll cut short much too soon by an audience too excited to hold back any longer.

Anne Ozorio

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