Daniel Harding: Britten & Mahler

Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, Op.31
Symphony No.10 [Performing Version by Deryck Cooke]

Ian Bostridge (tenor) &
Richard Bissill (horn)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Daniel Harding

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 31 March, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Despite having come in for a degree of critical censure in recent years, Deryck Cooke’s ’performing version’ of Mahler 10 rests secure as the work’s most authentic realisation and – barring the extremely unlikely emergence of ’Sibelius 8’ – the most important posthumous symphonic rehabilitation after Schubert. Among the conductors most responsible for its wider acceptance is Simon Rattle – whose protégé, Daniel Harding, took up the challenge at this concert and is scheduled to do so on future occasions.

And, at around 76 minutes, Harding was in line with Rattle – though the interpretation itself was far from a slavish imitation. It was at its best in the two scherzo movements – problematic on account of the autograph score’s frequent lack of polyphonic detail, but emerging here as complementary in mood and formal thinking. Harding pressed the LPO players almost beyond limit in the first scherzo – justifiable on account of the sheer impulsiveness of the music-making, yet with enough flexibility to accommodate the Ländler theme within the prevailing scherzo tempo. After a poised but ominous account of the brief ’Purgatorio’, Harding projected the second scherzo’s desperate extremes of animation and eloquence with conviction: not quite integrating the ethereal central interlude into the overall argument, but controlling tension throughout the crepuscular coda with absolute precision.

The outer movements were less convincing, perhaps because Harding has not the experience with Mahler’s earlier adagios and finales to sustain the prolix formal arguments being played out here. Contrasts in pace between the opening movement’s ’andante’ and ’adagio’ themes were a little forced, while the interceding dance music flowed to the point of being hectic. This, and a tendency to expressively underline strategic formal points, robbed the music of a corresponding naturalness as regards phrasing and articulation, though the coda brought the right transcendent repose.

Harding’s concentration in the finale’s sombre, drum-punctuated opening measures was impressive, as was Celia Chambers’s flute-playing in the heart-easing melody which in itself makes Cooke’s realisation of the whole work worthwhile. The ’allegro moderato’ central section rarely seems able to bear the structural and emotional weight required of it as Mahler recalls the shattering dissonance from the first movement: Harding fell marginally short in this respect, and he could do worse than emulate Rattle in reinforcing the climactic apex with additional percussion. The finale’s continuation also needs to be rendered with a degree more gravitas, though there was no doubting the sincerity of Harding’s response – nor the eloquence of the LPO strings in the symphony’s ineffable closing bars.

String playing of commendable lightness and shade also informed the account of Britten’s Serenade. Richard Bissell was attentive if far from flawless in his handling of the horn part, while Ian Bostridge’s singing left a distinctly equivocal impression. Fuller toned than when he made his recording of the work with Ingo Metzmacher, the often-mannered nature of his delivery – typified by a seeming unwillingness to simply ’sing’ phrases so that continuity of the vocal line is not broken – has passed the point of justification on interpretative grounds alone. Is Bostridge trying too hard to uncover new layers of meaning? Is he just bored with performing the piece (Britten’s Nocturne is a much more appropriate coupling for the Mahler in any case)? Whatever the reason, this was not an account with the emphasis where it should be – on the expressive potency of the actual music.

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