Daniel Harding conducts Mahler—Symphony No. 9


By aged 43, I figured Daniel Harding would be at or near the top of the conducting heap—his reputation so well manicured (by a brilliant talent and very close associations with Rattle and Abbado), that a major post in Europe or the US would have been offered by now. A pleasant surprise was the music directorship of the Orchestre de Paris, the rough and tumble band that can, at times, be encouraged to provide top class music making. No happy ending, though. Harding decamped this year after only two years on the job citing, I think, artistic disagreements 'You are a supreme expression of a musical culture that is not mine.'. A nice way of saying I can’t be arsed to fix what's wrong [full statement here]. 

I've heard of other problems on podcasts of his working relations with US orchestras (LA and Chicago, specifically). Yet, through correspondence on social media, the excellent relations with many players of the London Symphony as its Principal Guest Conductor, and from concerts I've attended, Harding seems to be a very charming guy as well as a superb musician. 

Stockholm must think so. He's been the Music Director of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra for over ten years. I've heard two [read here and here] recordings by the team, but as accompanists. They were superb performances and recordings. On this new Harmonia Mundi recording, Harding takes on a favourite, the final (completed) and best symphony of Gustav Mahler, the magnificent Ninth.  

He comes to Mahler the honest, hard working way. Those close associations with great Mahlerians Claudio Abbado and Sir Simon Rattle (he was so close to Rattle as a youngster, his nickname was ‘babyrattle’) helped in no small part, too. 

I’ve really liked what I’ve heard from Harding in large-canvas works. And here, he has a superb grasp on the large architectural spaces the Ninth inhabits. The slightly less than world class Swedish Radio orchestra plays beautifully for him. 

Daniel Harding with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. Photo: http://classicalsource.com/

Daniel Harding with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. Photo: http://classicalsource.com/

The incredible opening Andante comodo unfolds elegantly and is interspersed with moments of great drama. The strings play the sweeping counterpoint with great precision and the gorgeous solo flute and horn in the coda would be hard to beat. 

The second movement Ländler is played with emphasis on the rustic. The deep clarinets and the pesante markings are a little over cooked.  But the movement on the whole is successful. 

The hectic, frantic Rondo Burleske, where a little over cooking is needed, is the orchestra’s Waterloo. The quiet episodes that break up the intensity are splendid, but there’s no controlled frenzy like Bernstein or Abbado with orchestras from Vienna and Berlin in the opening or during the incredible coda. There’s breath left, where the audience (and orchestra) should be gasping. Safe sex just when you don't want it. 

The final, great Adagio is given an intense reading, filled with beautiful string playing and wonderful solo contributions. The tension ratchets up slowly, but is released in a huge wave by the unison horn melody after the ‘bridge of fire’ violins. The long goodbye close is as effective as it can be on record. 

So, a bookend Mahler 9, with a superb opening and closing movement with the middle slightly less than top notch. 

Unfortunately, with so many wonderful Ninths around, it’s hard to suggest a firm recommendation for this Harmonia Mundi. Even the best can get euchred! Karajan’s superb studio DG recording was later bested by his live performance, also on DG, from the Berlin Festival, and is my choice if I could only own one recording.  

My favourite in modern sound is with Dudamel on DG. The Harding recording is good but is not as uninhibited as the DG recording highlighting Dudamel’s (world class) Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.