New York Philharmonic/Harding – Mahler 10

Symphony No.10 [Performing Version of Mahler’s draft, prepared by Deryck Cooke in collaboration with Berthold Goldschmidt, Colin Matthews and David Matthews]

New York Philharmonic
Daniel Harding

Reviewed by: Lewis M. Smoley

Reviewed: 2 December, 2011
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Daniel Harding. Photpgraph:  K. MiuraGustav Mahler’s widow, Alma, may not have realized that her consent to the first public performance of what British musicologist Deryck Cooke referred to as a “Performing Version” of Mahler’s unfinished Tenth Symphony would let the cat out of the bag. Joseph Wheeler had previously prepared a then-unplayed edition, and now any scholar or musician could obtain Mahler’s substantial sketches and attempt a completion. Eight other versions have appeared, but Cooke’s performing version has remained the most frequently performed. Daniel Harding, who began his career as assistant to Sir Simon Rattle, one of the staunchest champions of the Cooke Tenth, has recorded it with the Vienna Philharmonic, so it is not surprising that he opted for that version (mixing elements of Cooke’s revisions) for this week’s New York Philharmonic concerts.

No discernible overview of the symphony emerged, and the emotional depth of this remarkable work did not come across until the finale. The performance did, however, generate high-voltage intensity, and laced with energetic fast tempos in the two scherzo movements. Notwithstanding some ensemble disorder at the beginning of the first scherzo and occasional intonation problems, the Philharmonic performed with its usual technical excellence. Strings sounded rich and vibrant, particularly in the outer movements, woodwinds were perky and articulate, and brass full-bodied, if somewhat over-the-top. Harding glossed over the lengthy opening movement, as if more concerned about meeting its technical demands than eliciting the biting intensity and dramatic weight this music should convey. It lacked emotive depth and sufficient dramatic impact, often sounding too studious, deficient in thrusting accentuation, expressive subtlety and dynamic character.

Harding produced textural transparency in the complex polyphony of the scherzo movements enabling important motifs to be heard underneath principal melodic material. However, he seemed to reverse the characters of these two movements. The second movement scherzo juxtaposes a bumptious Ländler with its heavy-footed hopping figure that causes frequent meter shifts, with a carefree but more metrically regularized waltz. Although there is much in common with the second movement of the Ninth Symphony, no life-and-death battle is waged here. Harding missed the music’s humor in this music, the dance elements made fierce, brusque and antagonistic. The second scherzo (fourth movement) should sound brutal and fiercely aggressive. Harding sanitized harshness and over-romanticized lyricism and he set a brisk pace for the brief third movement, ‘Purgatorio’, which recalls the song ‘Das irdische Leben’ (The Earthly Life) from Des Knaben Wunderhorn with its ostinato rhythm and mysterious atmosphere that hovers over fairytale-like frippery.

Harding made the greatest impression in the finale. The movement begins with a single stroke on a muffled military drum that is repeated in its punctuation. How loudly these strokes should sound remains a topic of controversy. Harding directed them to be played strongly, and the effect was shattering. The first flautist played the soulful first theme exquisitely, touching the heart with bittersweet longing. Antiphonal placement of the violins helped to distinguish their disparate thematic material. The finale’s contrasting subject was played briskly, enhancing its demonic character. Harding’s approach to the reprise of the enormous chordal pile-up, however, seemed sluggish, and the restatement of the symphony’s opening theme in the horns dragged along endlessly. But in the crowning final moments, the violins restated the moving first theme, two horns called us onward to a distant plane, and the orchestra imbued the closing sustained chords with the warm glow of a spirit at peace.

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