Staatskapelle Dresden/Harding – Mahler 9

Symphony No.9

Staatskapelle Dresden
Daniel Harding

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 10 January, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The past week has seen two welcome visitors from Dresden, first Olaf Bär, a native of the city and still domiciled there, to sing Wolf at the Wigmore Hall, and now the Staatskapelle, with a history stretching back four-and-a-half centuries; the orchestra’s sound quality was greatly admired by Karajan and once appositely compared to “old gold”. Rather less a visitor was Daniel Harding, Principal Guest Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra and Music Director of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra; some years ago the latter gave a notably fine Mahler 9 in the Royal Festival Hall under the late, great Evgeny Svetlanov.

Quite simply, as conducted by Harding, this was one of the most satisfying of the 20-plus live Mahler 9s I have heard over the years (including Klemperer and Kurt Sanderling). The reasons were perfectly straightforward. This was a performance which consistently made a genuine effort to give us what Mahler actually wrote, especially when it came to observing his myriad dynamic markings; but also in making sense of Mahler’s sometimes-tricky tempi relationships and quite superbly and lucidly played by an orchestra acutely sensitive to internal balances. The string sections (with antiphonal violins) still produce that gloriously rich and well-balanced body of tone, with notably present violas and the most golden-sounding cellos. Woodwinds and brass may be less distinctive but both sections are beautifully embedded into the overall texture as well as being remarkably secure – no small matter in a score with so many exposed passages.

Harding’s way with the first movement was long-drawn and manifested the sort of patience one would expect from an older conductor. Especially notable were those moments of quiet where, in the backwashes to the movement’s great climaxes, the music hauls itself gradually out of the pit: these were superbly concentrated and frequently held on the finest thread of sound. Time and again because dynamics were so precisely calibrated, even at the greatest climaxes and the most heavily scored moments, it was possible to hear frequently obscured inner parts, especially in the lower strings. Particular care was paid to the pauses, here daringly protracted, and the movement’s final pages when the music gradually fragments – often a danger point where tension lapses – were uniquely sustained with a notably hypnotic flute solo from Sabine Kittel.

As marked, the second movement Ländler’s initial base tempo was just slow enough to allow the second violins to imitate rough country-fiddles (any faster and it can easily sound trite), whilst the second Ländler was decisively quicker and the third infinitely tender. Perhaps the movement’s climax, almost a premonition of the following ‘Rondo-Burleske’, was just a little too volatile to make its full grotesque impact but was brought off with significant inner conviction. The ‘Rondo’ itself was remarkable both for its heft and also for the sheer unanimity of the orchestra’s corporate response, the bittersweet episode at its heart – which can outstay its welcome – being particularly beautifully handled whilst the successive increases of speed at the close were truly thrilling: definitely a white-knuckle-ride to the abyss.

The crown in the Dresdeners’ performance was undoubtedly the string playing in the finale, immaculately sustained from the very outset, beautifully balanced in the tuttis (with the first horn sensitively integrated into the texture and refusing to hog the limelight) and blessedly unanimous as well as impassioned in the combined violin descent to the culminating ‘Molto adagio’. Special thanks to the tiny but all-important ppp solo cello lead into the final page, tender and expressive but avoiding any hint of sentimentality.

Hugely to Harding’s credit, this was a performance of remarkable maturity, one completely devoid of ego which focussed instead on what Mahler actually wrote. Above all, at its close there was no doubt that collectively we had travelled a whole lifetime over the 81 minutes this performance had taken. Such was the music’s spell that even the applause started prematurely by a section of the audience tailed off into the silence it had broken – before the rest of us were finally ready to applaud.

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