I now know why I often find the sound at the Barbican Hall unsatisfactory: the orchestras have been too small! When visually confronted with an expanded LSO in Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony, it only takes the launching on the deepest instruments to set the pulses racing and the ears exploding in joy.
I first encountered Daniel Harding as a young conductor in charge of the Composers’ Competition hosted by the LSO some twenty years ago. A conscientious musician, the impression then was that his head ruled his heart. Now everything seems to be in balance. This was a terrific account of the Mahler in terms of helping us “to confront and endure stark reality” (Stephen Johnson). For me that came in the recent loss of one of the nicest male friends of my generation, whose daughters were my bridesmaids forty-five years ago and who died within five weeks of diagnosis of a runny nose!
It is easy to stand outside the Mahlerian experience of death and consolation when it does not strike home with unforgiving force. But if life’s experiences overlap then such a performance as was heard here had an overwhelming cathartic response for at least one listener.
In no Symphony to my knowledge do the deepest instruments hold sway as leading voices. Harding launched this huge work in the grandest style and the double-bassists responded with a violent shudder which set the tone of authenticity to the very end. Harding was attentive to the many nuances in the score. The massive structure of the opening ‘funeral march’ was wonderfully realised. Harding was in total command of his intentions and the LSO responded with splendour and beauty, the quietest passages being as effective as the explosions. The recapitulation caused hairs to stand up like Hitchcock achieves in his best movies. This was the life-force in full flow.
The next two movements are both easy to underestimate in their originality and breadth of expression; Harding was loving in his attention to detail and numerous expressive markings were scrupulously observed. Then ‘Urlicht’ entered with a delicate timbre so beautifully conjured by Anna Larsson; heart-stopping.
So we came to the beginning of the end of this great monster of a work, fully capturing Mahler’s line to Sibelius that “the symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.” The Finale is a broad and complete expression of “the search for faith and the horror of meaningless” (Johnson). Harding drove his huge forces, the magnificent orchestra (off-stage too), the resplendent London Symphony Chorus and the two soloists, now adding the communicative Miah Persson. Honours can be shared around but the top accolade must go to Harding whose gut-wrenching way with so much of this music bore down on a capacity audience. It was a privilege to be there.